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Researchers Pilot a Drone Using an Apple Watch

Far from science fiction, the ability to seemingly control things with your hands is no longer the fantasy that stories like Star Wars once imagined, thanks to a research team in Taiwan that has created technology akin to using The Force.

The Taiwanese technology researchers at PVD+ have written an algorithm for the Apple Watch that renders it a remote controller that can pilot drones and manipulate lights using hand gestures.

PVD+, founded in 2013 and led by Mark Ven, a civil engineering Ph.D. student at the National Chung Hsing University along with a professor there, Yang Ming-der, and three other group members, calls the software Dong coding. After 18 months of research and application, the PVD+ team now say they can install the algorithm on any device and give it the ability to control directions.

Demonstrating outside the Park Lane Department Store on Gongyi Road in Taichung City, Ven showed how simple gesticulations using his hand could fly his Parrot AR Drone 3.0, with the Apple Watch interpreting what he was doing and sending corresponding signals to the drone.

"Previously we've needed complicated controls to fly drones, but now we can use a wearable device, and through human behavior and gestures directly interact with them — using a hand to control and fly drones directly," he told Reuters.

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"We can also control a ball, like that in Star Wars' BB-8 droid, using a wearable device as well," he said, referring to his Sphere 2.0 drone that resembles the BB-8 droid from the latest Star Wars movie, "The Force Awakens."

"We used to play with drones using controllers, but now we could control them with our hands. It's something I'd love to buy after seeing it here," said Wang Si-kai, a student from Hsiuping University of Science and Technology watching the demonstration.

The technology is still in its nascent stages — easily affected by wind and other environmental factors, while batteries can be exhausted in as little as 20 minutes. "The drone's performance was great, although the environment provided a bit of a challenge — the airflow made it harder to control. I think we could consider it good if we exclude the environmental factors," said another Hsiuping University student, Wu Jia-hsin.

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In addition to flying and driving drones, Ven and his team have adapted the Dong coding to manipulate lighting — not just turning lights on and off, but even changing colors by writing letters. "When I clap twice the light turns on, as it detects that I'm clapping. When I write an English 'R' in the air the red light turns on, and when I write an English 'Y' the yellow light turns on. Lastly, when I clap twice the light turns off," Ven said.

"During this process we are communicating and interacting on the Human Computer Interface by using the internet of things, and the wearable device," he added.

Drone gesture controls have been under development for the last few years among various teams across the world, including Thalmic Lab's Myo armband which measures electrical activity in muscles rather than the physical movements. The PVD+ team is currently in the process of applying to Taiwan's Li & Cai Intellectual Property Office for a patent for its Dong software.