Fluidity Founder, an M.D. and NASA Veteran, Designs One-Handed Drone Controller

Xconomy Texas — 

Houston—Commercial drones are equipped with some of the latest innovations in cameras, sensors, and analytics, so Scott Parazynski wondered why pilots are still using outmoded controllers.

“We’ve grown accustomed to these tools but decades later it’s the same [controller] model,” says Parazynski, founder of Fluidity Technologies. “It’s surprising to me that we haven’t evolved past this point.”

So Parazynski decided to leverage his experience as a former NASA astronaut, physician, and pilot to designer a better controller. The result is the FT Aviator drone controller, which converts the typical two-handed device into one that can be used with only one hand.

Essentially, Parazynski says a single-handed controller gives users more natural coordination between the brain and hand while using the device, which then leads to more precision in filming. “If you’re doing something really exacting like tracking a target and tilting the camera at the same time to get powerful imagery, you don’t have to repeat the scene to get the right shot,” he says.

Parazynski founded Fluidity two years ago after having worked with controllers during his time as an astronaut at the International Space Station and physician at Houston Methodist Research Institute, where he used the DaVinci Surgical robots system.

“I was looking for areas for innovation in general and saw how incredibly complex those control systems were … and realized that surgical robots have not lived up to its full potential,” he says. He also saw similar potential for improvement in drone controllers.

Initially, Fluidity is targeting the consumer market, launching the aviator controller via a Kickstarter campaign. (The company has raised some funding from individual investors, but Parazynski declined to discuss specifics.) Parazynski says he believes that as people begin to like using the device, that popularity will help enlist commercial customers such as industrial crane operators and cinematographers.

Fluidity’s controller is one of a number of drone-related technologies that have some tie back to NASA. The space agency has led efforts, along with the Federal Aviation Administration, to develop and help to commercialize technologies to safely manage air traffic that will increasingly include drones. 

Kraettli Epperson’s startup, Vigilance Aerospace Systems, is among the companies helping federal agencies prepare for a drone-filled future. “We were able to get on one of the teams to allow drones and drone operators with special supervision to perform flights and functions that are not otherwise allowed, so the FAA could collect data and provide safety guidance,” he says.

Among those test flights are navigating drones over large groups of people, which is not currently allowed. The flights will continue over the next three years in order to show that unmanned aircraft like drones can be safely flown in situations where there are large populations, in night flights, and where the drone travels beyond a pilot’s line-of-sight.

Epperson founded Vigilant in Oklahoma City, OK, two years ago after commercializing a NASA technology that aims to create a “detect and avoid” system for drones. “That’s a key component to allow drones to fly safely beside manned aircraft,” he says. “In the future, we expect the industry to move toward more autonomy in a multi-drone environment in which you might have three or four pilots monitoring 20 or 50 drones.”

Given those numbers, it’s key to have technology to enable drones to make decisions like avoiding other aircraft themselves, he says. One human pilot, monitoring a dozen drones, would not likely be able to respond in time to each of the aircraft.

Many of Vigilant’s customers are in the oil and gas industry in both onshore and offshore sites in Texas; at ranches and other agricultural businesses in the Midwest; and at fisheries in Alaska. Epperson says he’s raised a couple of million dollars from individual investors, has a new partnership with sensor makers, and hopes to expand into medical device delivery.

Developing tech tools to monitor and control unmanned aircraft is a growing field. Software is especially key, according to consultancy McKinsey. “As the market matures, more value will migrate to software, especially for turnkey solutions that improve UAS operations by enhancing detect-and-avoid systems, enabling analytics, and assisting with navigation in areas where drones cannot rely on a GPS signal,” the firm said.