The Future of Exercise Is Now (and It's a Flying Drone)

By Brian Fung

Could a simple quadcopter revolutionize the way we work out?

joggobot-615.jpg
ExertionGamesLab.org

We have robots to assemble our cars, and others to clean our floors while we're out of the house. There are robots designed to carry huge loads, and still others that patrol unfriendly skies. These unmanned machines work best alone, in part because technology hasn't reached the point where human-robot interaction works seamlessly. But that's about to change.

Increasingly, we're coming to view automated devices as companions, not appliances. One example is the Joggobot, a machine that, despite sounding like it came out of an episode of "Lost in Space," has the potential to change much about the way we exercise. At the moment, it's a relatively simple device -- just a quadrotor drone that keeps up with you on your runs.

The robot is tethered to your smartphone, which you use to tell the device how high off the ground it should float. And then, you just go. The robot follows you by focusing on a special T-shirt you wear (always a catch, eh?) marked with orange and blue squares. It operates under two modes: a companion mode that automatically adjusts the drone's speed according to the runner's pace, and a coaching mode that challenges the runner by pulling ahead just so slightly.

There's nothing really revolutionary about the technology in its current form. It's little more than a replacement for a jogging buddy. But combined with evolutions in mobile hardware and software, it's not hard to see what the future of exercise might look like.

If you've tried working out with your phone, you've likely come across apps like Runkeeper, a kind of cross between a social network and a personal fitness log. Many of these programs can keep a map of your routes, record how fast and far you've traveled, any changes in elevation you've made, and other data about your exercise history. It's mesmerizing to track all these indicators over time, but you're often left in the dark about how you're improving and, more importantly, what more you can do.

Imagine if some of these functions were integrated into a training drone. Many of us wear heartrate monitors while we run. Advances in device-to-device communications could enable the drone to watch the heart monitor for signs of overexertion or dehydration. Aiming to reach a target heartrate? Program the drone to help you get there. Pretty soon, we might end up doing away with heart monitors altogether, once drones gain image processing capabilities that enable them to track how flushed our faces are.

Training bots can also put into practice what we've learned about music's effect on exercise. Research shows that listening to music while working out forestalls feelings of fatigue, heightens our motivation, and makes our bodies operate more efficiently. Future Joggobots could choose the right songs in our libraries to keep us going.

That's not all. Imagine you're training for a marathon. You tell your drone how long you've got until the big day, and the device not only comes up with a months-long training regimen where it plans a different workout for each day -- a half-hour jog on Monday, hills on Tuesday -- but it works with you to execute the plan. On a tempo run where you alternate between sprinting and jogging, the drone that's following you will tell you when to pick it up and when to relax. And to pull you along, it'll accelerate to the appropriate pace.

The applications for a smart trainer-drone aren't limited to running. Cyclists, swimmers, even soldiers could make use of such a machine. Load it up with data about the perfect tennis or golf swing, and you suddenly have a multi-talented coach that fits in a backpack.

These machines won't replace real personal trainers, of course -- not anytime soon. Experience still counts for a lot, especially to those who compete at a high level and who need very personalized assistance. Still, exercise has come a long way in recent years. It's grown from something we do simply to stay healthy into a source of learning. The data mining we've become so accustomed to on the Internet is seeping offline and teaching us more about how our bodies work. The next evolution in that process will be to put what we've learned to good use.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/06/the-future-of-exercise-is-now-and-its-a-flying-drone/258266/