Fitness drones are coming - if all the bugs get fixed
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By Bernd Debusmann Jr.
In the past 20 years, drones have become a fixture of modern life. From photography and journalism to package delivery and crop monitoring, companies of all kinds are increasingly turning to unmanned flying devices to cut costs, increase efficiency, decrease workload or simply do what humans cannot.
Where the world hasn't seen drones play a prominent role, however, is in the world of health and fitness. But that may be changing.
Researchers say that the recreational drone market - valued at $2.33 billion in 2020, according to data from Research and Markets - could come together with the $30 billion wearables market to produce what may one day be a fixture in personal health and wellness: fitness drones.
Among the earliest examples of the potential application of a drone in the fitness industry was the Joggobot created by the Exertion Games Laboratory at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, in 2012.
The Joggobot was designed to fly about 10 feet from a visual marker located on a jogger's T-shirt.
Florian "Floyd" Mueller, director of the Exertion Games Lab - now at Monash University in Melbourne - said that this early experiment with the technology showed that the drone has uses as both a pacer and, unexpectedly, as a "companion."
"The most surprising result was that people really thought (of the drone) as a companion, even if some used it as a pacer," Mueller said. "People sometimes said they wanted to run until 'he or she' died. The fact that they even said 'he' or 'she' was kind of fascinating."
Even as a companion, however, the Joggobot had a number of limitations, Mueller said. It only allowed for jogging or walking in straight lines, and it had a limited battery life that kept "flights" to well under 30 minutes.
A more recent conceptual project conducted by students at Hongik University in South Korea hopes to eventually address these issues by highlighting what may be possible in the future.
Their Traverse drone concept - which was unveiled in 2020 and has not yet been built - is intended to serve as a personal trainer for recreational runners. The design has the drone equipped with multiple cameras that allow it to navigate without any external control, and it would collect performance data and take photos and videos that can later be used to help runners correct their form.
The drone users would have wearable "pods" that can be hung around their necks or clipped to their clothing. The pod would provide voice feedback on posture and speed, as well as control the drone's settings and communicate with friends or family.
While the Traverse is still in a conceptual phase, one of its designers, Jinseon Lee, said she believes that it's only a matter of time before drones like it are used for performance improvement among runners.
"Currently, many wearable gear items can check and manage training conditions," she said, referring to wearables that track everything from speed and cadence to heart rate and calories burned. "Still, there are many inconveniences wearing them."
Researchers have said that using drone technology for exercise could be particularly helpful to runners and other exercisers who are visually impaired or blind.
To address this, a team of researchers from the Robotics Research Lab at the University of Nevada at Reno built in 2015 a prototype drone system that guides blind runners around a track using sound.
"The drone had two cameras, a front facing and a downward facing one. We were able to figure out a way to use the downward facing camera to follow a line on the ground around the track," said professor Eelke Folmer, a researcher who focuses on human-computer interaction.
"We were able to create a mock-up, and follow (the drone) using sound," Folmer added. "It seemed to work."
At the time, researchers faced a number of challenges: In an indoor setting, the echo of the drone made following difficult, while Federal Aviation Administration regulations made outdoor experimentation difficult. There were also concerns about runners colliding with the drone, which Folmer described as a potentially dangerous "flying lawn mower."
"It was a useful experiment," Folmer said. "If we were to do the same process again now, we'd probably have far better results. Drones are smaller and cameras are better. Things have evolved so much in a short amount of time ... I'm sure someone could figure this out."
Aside from running, experts have already pointed to a number of other applications for drones in the fitness world.
For team sports, for example, drones are already being put to use by a number of European soccer teams to help study tactics and ball movement during practices and games, while athletes in other sports - notably climbing and snow sports - use drones to help film activities for posterity.
At the moment, technological limitations and regulations - or a lack thereof, in many cases - mean that drone use will be limited in outdoor settings. Additionally, researchers in the field believe noise - such as in a public park - may become an issue, along with the potential for drones to collide with humans or objects in crowded areas.
Many researchers believe, however, these issues can be addressed.
"In my opinion, the real issue would be to ensure the safety of operations, which requires costs in R&D investment. This also implies being able to define contingency plans in case of any problems," said Eric Goubault, a professor of computer science and drone specialist at École Polytechnique in Paris.
Other issues include noise reduction if drones start being deployed on a large scale, he said, adding that battery life "could be an issue for smaller drones. Most would not have a long enough battery life to be completely suitable for some sports."
As an example, Goubault pointed to marathons, which even among the most elite runners last more than two hours.
Indoors, drones would face far fewer challenges - and that is where some researchers believe the technology could soon be applied.
The Exertion Games Lab believes it has come up with a prime example: meditative drones that can be used for "Drone Chi," a 21st-century answer to the ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi, which uses slow and precise movements for physical training and meditative purposes.
Using a small micro-drone - complete with a faux flower - and motion capture technology, researchers were able to tie the movements of the drone to hand movement, allowing participants to practice the slow and smooth hand movements that characterize tai chi. The lab has already created prototypes of these micro-drones and used them successfully in experiments.
"We found that it has something meditative about it," Mueller said. "There's this rubber band relationship. If I move one way, it moves a bit further, or if I move back, it speeds up. You can't be abrupt. You need to be smooth. There's a value to that."
As with the Joggobot, the researchers found that some experiment participants developed an attachment to their meditative drone, forcing them to focus their thoughts on keeping it afloat.
"They kind of felt a strange appeal to take care of it. Some even compared it to taking care of a pet, where you're always gentle how you lift it up and move it," Mueller said.
Ultimately, Mueller added, the benefit of drones in fitness may stem from this feeling of machine companionship and engagement.
"It could be a complementary companion in the future," he said. "If you don't have a sibling or dog to go jogging with, maybe a quadcopter is the next best thing."
The Washington Post