Ekaterina Peshkova | Foto: aau/Müller

Controlling drones: The passion to simplify what is complicated

For her doctoral thesis, Ekaterina Peshkova worked on a natural and intuitive mode of interaction between humans and drones. She expects to complete her work in Klagenfurt this April.

Ekaterina Peshkova loves challenges and she enjoys testing her own limits. At first, the technical sciences seemed very complicated to her, but as the years have passed, she has embraced the subject and became confident   in solving technical problems. “Even as a schoolchild, I enjoyed mathematics for the same reason”, she tells us. Peshkova is delighted when she manages to reduce complexity. This passion also finds expression in the topic of her doctoral thesis: She is working on a simplified mode of interaction between humans and drones. Rather than operating complicated controllers, it should be possible to navigate drones through the use of gestures and simple voice commands in the future. “Everything should become simpler”, as she likes to summarise.

Peshkova’s primary concern is that the technology should be perceived as useful by the users themselves. “Typically, designers define  vocabularies to interact with drones, which are subsequently tested in studies by the participants.” Ekaterina Peshkova took the opposite approach: Within the scope of her investigation, she let study participants believe that they could control the flight of a drone with their own gestures. (In fact, the drone was controlled externally.) This allowed her to observe spontaneous behavior of users when they are required to interact with a flying robot. Her data yielded a set of user-defined gestures, which flow naturally and intuitively from the study participants, who have no prior experience. In the next step, using the concept of mental models, Peshkova endeavoured to determine the logic behind the gestures used. The results revealed, amongst others, that it is simpler for the user, if all gestures belong to the same mental model, and mixing gestures from different mental models  should be avoided. “This homogeneity appears to be more intuitive and tends to lead to less confusion”, Peshkova explains.

Ekaterina Peshkova has no doubt that drones will find their way into our everyday lives in the next ten to twenty years. “If every average person, regardless of their age, will be required to operate drones, we will also need an intuitive form of control”, she states with conviction. Until then, numerous privacy and safety regulations will need to be established; nevertheless, Peshkova is looking forward to a future where drones are commonplace. “It’s going to be great fun”, she is certain. Maybe the dream drawn from fantasy movies can be realised, where humans are carried through the air on tiny vehicles. And perhaps, one day, it will be just as normal to fly on drones, as it is to ride a bike. These are exciting visions of the future for Peshkova, which she would like to contribute to with her technology.

Her contract in Klagenfurt will come to an end in April; for now, she remains undecided about the future challenges she would like to accept. “Define simple”, she says when we ask her how it feels not to know where she is going to be living in the upcoming summer. However, she does know what she wants to be doing: “I want to keep learning, I want to improve things, I want to remain in the academic field, work with students, continue my research”, she says. Peshkova is from Russia and has spent the past five years studying in Europe; first with the Erasmus Mundus Master Program in Advanced Robotics (EMARO) in Nantes and Genoa, then with the Erasmus Mundus Doctorate Program in Interactive and Cognitive Environments (ICE) in Genoa and Klagenfurt, working with Martin Hitz at the Department of Informatics Systems. Each year, she relocated to a different country. She stopped hammering nails into the walls of her apartments long ago; instead, she now prefers to look at digital photos. Being permanently on the move has encouraged her to minimize her possessions. And at the same time, it has maximized her intellectual horizon and the diversity of her experiences.

A few words with … Ekaterina Peshkova

What career would you have chosen, if you had not become a scientist?

There are so many different activities that I enjoy doing! I guess I would have chosen a career that includes travelling, meeting new people, learning about different cultures, and discovering something new. The first thing that comes to my mind now is an independent travel writer.

Do your parents understand what it is you are working on?

They would prefer that I say something like ‘Yes, my parents have a good idea of what I am working on’ BUT as they taught me not to lie, I have to say the truth. They have only a general idea about my research, but nevertheless it does not prevent them from being very supportive and encouraging.

What is the first thing you do when you arrive at the office in the morning?

I often start my working day by preparing an hourly to-do list that I try to finish during the day. It helps me to manage my time efficiently.

Do you have proper holidays? Without thinking about your work?

Just like any PhD student, I think about my research most of the time. During the last three years, we (me and my research) have become almost ‘inseparable’. I am very lucky with my research topic that I find challenging and fun at the same time! Nevertheless, each year I spend at least one week ‘away from civilization’, somewhere in a village with no Internet access to ‘recharge my batteries’.

What makes you furious?

Lack of mutual respect between people.

What calms you down?

In my case, the most effective means is chocolate.

Who do you regard as the greatest scientist in history, and why?

There are so many great scientists who have made huge contributions to bring us closer to the technologically advanced world we live now. As a person who lives far from relatives, I especially value the technology that despite the geographical remoteness allows us to contact each other in the blink of a second and travel vast distances within hours. That is why I would like to mention the Wright Brothers, who succeeded in making the first flight ever with a heavier-than-air aircraft in a small town next to the Atlantic Ocean with a catchy name – Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina – where I was lucky to spend a summer during my very first trip abroad.

What are you afraid of?

I’m afraid that at night someone might grab my heel, so (just in case) I always keep my feet under the blanket.

What are you looking forward to?

I am looking forward to becoming Dr. Peshkova!