Drones Make Good Jogging Companions, Research Finds

Nothing says "yay, exercise" like chasing a friendly robot

Having trouble getting motivated to jog? What if, to help you along your way, there was a flying robot always a few steps ahead of you, its mechanical hovering body an exercise in technologically advanced mockery? Researchers Floyd Mueller and Matthew Muirhead at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia designed and built a system that lets joggers run with a quadcopter flying along for encouragement

Presented at the Computer-Human Interaction Conference in Seoul, the paper detailed a study where 13 casual joggers followed a drone on a 25 minute course. The drone flew a preset path along waypoints, and provided companionship to the joggers in a way similar to a running buddy or a dog. Much of the work of the researchers was configuring the drone so that it would work best as a companion. The quadcopter was programmed to fly 13 feet ahead of the joggers, though without sensors the quadcopter instead relied on the joggers’ pre-submitted track speed and flew approximately in front of where it was supposed to be.

Because the drone wobbled in the wind, its movements were less precise than a robot running on code might otherwise seem. The researchers quote one jogger describing the wobbles as a sign of personality:

“I am not sure of wind or whatever, but it started to wobble, and it started to crisscross in front of me, and I quite liked it, because it reminded me that I am running with something, I like running with a buddy, […] it gave it a bit of personality, a bit of character, I think what was cool about it, in that moment, cause it was like ‘Hey, follow me!’”

Joggers took to the drones right away. Much of the paper then describes how the researchers tailored the drones for jogging companionship, and thoughts about ways to do it in the future, like having the robot fly close in so the jogger react like its a nearby human competitor.

In the future, drones could be as common a jogging aid as Fitbits and smartphone pedometers. With sensors to collect data about their joggers, drones could become a hybrid companion and accessory, encouraging people to get exercise even if alone. And should jogging drones become common enough that they annoy bystanders, we already have a term for that: it's robot smog.