Spinoff is NASA’s annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.

Scott Parazynski’s 17 years of experience as an astronaut and spacewalker helped inspire a joystick that puts all the primary drone fight controls into a single hand and will one day, he hopes, revolutionize robotic surgery.

Moving through zero gravity allowed maneuvering that isn’t possible when gravity is a factor: you can manipulate your direction not just moving back and forth, sideways, and up and down but through rotations (pitch, yaw, and roll). He spent hours training in a virtual trainer getting ready for flight, using the translational hand controller and rotational hand controller for the robotic arm and simulator.

Parazynski took all the experience he had with astronaut robotics controllers as well as aircraft joysticks into his next venture as an entrepreneur. But it was his experience as a physician that first gave him the idea. After he retired from NASA, Parazynski took a position as the chief technology officer at a hospital in Houston. When he started to look at robotic surgical tools, he was not impressed.

The tools are clunky, he noticed, and require a lot of hands-on training on fundamental maneuvers. He saw an opportunity to use his space and piloting experience with hand controllers to build something better. He teamed up with George Guerrero and founded a company, Fluidity Technologies, to create a better controller for robotic surgery.

In 2018, Fluidity Tech launched the FT Aviator, which allows movement in up to six degrees of motion with a single hand. But as the name suggests, it’s a controller for aviation (specifically for flying drones) rather than robotic surgery. Surgery is still the ultimate goal but the process of getting FDA approval is long and arduous, so in the meantime, the company decided to apply its controller to the drone market.

Unlike most standard drone controllers that use two-thumb joystick models, the FT Aviator puts all the primary drone flight controls in one hand, freeing up the other hand to complete other tasks, such as controlling an onboard camera. The controller also has a mount for a smartphone, allowing the operator to easily see the “drone’s-eye view.”

The FT Aviator is currently compatible with a number of models from drone-maker DJI, which offers a software developer kit designed to enable third-party accessories. Parazynski received interest from other companies who want to partner with Fluidity Tech to integrate the new controller including helicopter manufacturers and surgical and medical manufacturing companies.

The biggest advantage of the new controller is that it is far more intuitive than the industry-standard, two-thumb joystick models. With FT Aviator, the pilot grips the controller with the whole hand, resting the thumb at the top. That means the thumb tip movement correlates to the movement of the aircraft: lifting the thumb makes the aircraft climb; pushing forward moves it forward.

The other main benefit is that the single joystick frees up the other hand to do non-flight-related tasks. The FT Aviator builds in camera controls to the base of the unit as well as a mount for a smartphone or tablet to view the camera feed or manipulate any other relevant app. That means a single person can accomplish tasks that previously required two sets of hands, which could provide significant cost savings in businesses where drone imagery is becoming increasingly important, from cinematography to real estate, roofing, and utilities inspections.

The same benefits apply beyond drones. Parazynski sees his one-handed controller taking on new industries in the near future as a smart human-machine interface that other providers could then build around.

Learn about other NASA Spin-Offs .


Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the June, 2021 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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