Quadrocopters for quadriplegics: New tech allows disabled to ‘pilot drone over Grand Canyon’

Quadrocopters for quadriplegics: New tech allows disabled to ‘pilot drone over Grand Canyon’
A British AI specialist, struck down with quadriplegia in his twenties, has modified a quadrocopter so that it can be flown with only eye movements and a working index finger – a technology he hopes will help millions like him see the world.

Stuart Turner was an MIT undergraduate a decade ago, when he was diagnosed with cervical spina bifida - a split spine - and a host of other conditions, which resulted in him gradually but irreversibly losing function in his extremities, until in the final year, he could no longer type his assignments.

Unable to complete his course, Turner dropped out, and became a virtual recluse, living in his Manchester bedsit. He spent his years modifying his vocal software, which first allowed him to speak clearly, and eventually code again.

But working from home for a big software company wouldn’t be enough for the self-described “tinkerer.”

“I really wanted to fly a quadcopter!” Turner wrote in an email after being contacted by RT.

“It’s amazing to fly around a distant space when you can’t move your own body. I really can’t describe it.”

The key was combining a fairly straightforward and affordable Parrot AR drone – “basically a big toy that you fly with your phone” – and the innovative and “time-consuming” re-programing of open source technology for Turner’s needs.

Reuters / Steve Marcus

Even now, the skills required to fly a drone, make Dark Souls, or the piloting of a real jet, look like a cakewalk.

“I have a camera sitting on top of my laptop, which tracks a reflective dot on my glasses, so if I move my head up and to the left that's where the cursor moves to on my screen. Under my right index finger I have a switch, which mimics left mouse clicks on my computer and it’s a combination of these two things gives me basic control over my laptop,” explains Turner.

“I repurposed a plug-in, which enables me to fly the drone via a web browser. This enables me open up my web browser and see the video feed coming from the camera mounted on the front of the drone. The plug-in also enables you to use different keystrokes to move the drone in different directions, so if you pressed ‘T’ the drone will take off and if you press ‘L’ the drone will land.”

And did this go well straight away?

“There were many, many crash landings and there continue to be some spectacular ones even now,” says Turner.

Once Turner’s software was perfected, with “free help from some members of the open source community,” without whom “none of this would be possible,” the prototype caught the attention of the technological community.

Last month, Turner conducted a triumphant remote demonstration from his Manchester house for the awestruck audience of the Wired 2014 conference in London, while speaking eloquently about his history, condition and ambitions.

Now, Turner plans to seek “a small amount of funding” for a custom-made quadriplegic drone, which he believes will be “amazing.”

“At the moment I think we are very much in the Model T stage of the process, so I think it's impossible to say where it might go. But remote presence for people who can't leave their houses is going to be huge hopefully, to be able to give somebody who suffers from locked in syndrome, who lives in the UK, the ability to fly over the Grand Canyon would be incredible. There are already people who are working in these areas, and I will do anything to make this a reality.”