This Drone Responds To Your Emotions Just Like A Good Pet

Scared? Happy? Surprised? This drone knows, and responds appropriately.

A good dog just knows. When you’re sad, she’ll sleep in your bed. When you’re overwhelmed, she’ll keep her distance. And when you want to play? A dog is always ready to play.


Drones are becoming more common in our lives, with 770,000 recently registered in the U.S. in just over a year’s time. What if interacting with these silent companions was as natural as hanging out with man’s best friend? Could we communicate at least as well with them as we do the 90 million dogs we have in this country?

To understand Royal College of Art graduate student Eirini Malliaraki‘s latest project, I’d urge you to think of it as a drone that’s been programmed to act like an empathetic pet. Malliaraki modified a drone to analyze human facial expressions and detect five emotions–fear, joy, surprise, anger, and sadness. In response, the device changes its movements to subtly communicate with the user.

Drones are in essence flying robots,” Malliaraki says of the project, which was spotted by Prosthetic Knowledge. “Yet, they present different physical characteristics, especially by being non-anthropomorphic . . . [which] precludes drone designers from using facial features or gait to represent emotional states.”

Instead of anthropomorphism, the drone communicates with what it’s got–movement. When someone is afraid, the drone slows and drops low to the ground, essentially genuflecting to the person. It makes no fast movements and backs off. When someone is surprised, the drone approaches them almost like a timid dog approaches a stranger–slowly investigating, backing off, and then approaching again. 


It’s easy to imagine that Malliaraki may have drawn design inspiration from man’s best friend, but in fact, she looked to dance and animation, and even “the interaction between falconers and their birds of prey,” as she puts it.


“It’s true that some people treat drones as pets, giving them names and asking about their well-being (true story),” says Malliaraki. “They somehow seem alive, just as happens with other robots.”

Given that companies like Amazon are at least half-seriously considering drone delivery, and the greater drone industry is estimated to balloon to $11.2 billion by 2020, society seems destined to deal with drones on a daily basis very soon. So whether or not Malliaraki’s interaction design is adopted at large, don’t be surprised if we eventually see something a lot like it. Because none of us can really know what an autonomous robot is “thinking.” And in a world in which we’re surrounded by more and more drones, capable of buzzing our heads at 90 mph, humans need a better option than rolling over and playing dead. 


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.