Could Your Next Running Partner Be a Drone?

Cars, television, video games, and computers are often blamed for making Australians less healthy. But now, researchers are looking at ways technology helps us become more active. The latest? Researchers at the Exertion Games Lab at RMIT University examined the experience of running with a drone.

For the purpose of the study, believed to be the first of its type, researchers Florian Mueller and Matthew Muirhead designed their own drone, called a quadcopter, which could follow a predetermined path. They recruited 13 recreational runners, 10 men, 3 women, to test it and relay their experiences. Mueller presented a paper on their findings at the Computer-Human Interaction Conference (known as CHI 2015) in Seoul last month.

Although drones are gaining wider use for capturing race footage, running solo with a drone may sound like a scene straight from The Jetsons. Particpants noted that doing so had its pros and cons, but generally, the study’s participants enjoyed it and considered the experience “very interesting.” Some asked if they could use the quadcopter on their future runs.

The study’s participants appreciated the device’s ability to help them maintain a constant pace, but wished they had more control over the path the quadcopter took and the pace at which it travelled.

At times, wind and sensor inaccuracies caused the device to vary from its flight path slightly. In some cases, the runners found this to be distracting and some worried about their safety because they, too, had to vary their path to avoid the drone. Others, however, felt that some of the quadcopter’s movements made it seem more human. Some participants felt that the quadcopter was trying to send them messages, like “Slow down!” or “Follow me!” which they appreciated.

Mueller wrote in an email to Runner’s World that the latter was one of the most surprising findings of the study.

“This companion was interacted with not just like we do with a machine, but also like a toy, animal, and even other human beings: People were saying the quadcopter appeared to have a ‘character,’” Muller wrote. “This resulted in a very different experience compared to experiences with other interactive systems, like jogging apps on a mobile phone. They are more like training tools, whereas the quadcopter was treated like a companion.”

Some found that thinking, and in some cases worrying, about the quadcopter distracted from their run and made it less relaxing, while others found the distraction to be helpful in taking their focus off their pain.

Because the participants tested the quadcopter in a public park, they said that, not surprisingly, running with a drone attracted the attention of those nearby. One runner noted, “I’m jogging with a robot, and people think it’s rad,” while also admitting that doing so felt “a bit awkward.”

The researchers believe that follow up studies than involve having participants run with the quadcopter more than once would be insightful. They also suggest that the quadcopter could be studied and used for other “exertion” sports like cycling, cross country skiing, and rowing.

Mueller believes that if personal drones are designed well, we’ll see many more runners using them in the future.

“We do not know when this will be, but if we compare this to the development of the mobile phone –initially, the idea of using a mobile phone to support joggers was probably smiled at. We believe the future will happen quicker than we think,” Mueller wrote.

Mueller and Muirhead also believe that quadcopters could be used as pacers at races. Imagine following a drone to your 3:59:59 marathon goal, instead of a person holding a 4:00 sign.

Above all else, Mueller and Muirhead hope that their work will inspire other designers to create similar systems that will increase physical activity among the masses.


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