Iris Dynamics, a technology company founded by former UVic students, specializes in real-feel robotics
– Brad Buie
Patrick McFadden and Kyle Hagen already had a lot in common. They both attended the University of Victoria and both were pilots. Then, in 2012, they teamed up for an exciting project: to build a flight simulator at the Victoria International Airport for their employer (a now-defunct company).
When they got to building controls—or yokes as they are known on aircraft—the duo were striving for a certain certification standard. Off-the-shelf force feedback yokes were too expensive. They began thinking how they could build them cheaper and perhaps make them better. They landed on an elegant solution: abandon machine parts like cogs and gears in favour of the push and pull of magnetic forces.
McFadden (BA ’08) and Hagen independently co-founded Iris Dynamics and launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to develop this unique human-machine interface. Now, five years later, they have a bustling office on Quadra Street and a growing number of projects and partners. They have seven employees, two of whom are UVic students pursuing engineering degrees. “The tie in with UVic is great. We’re able to pull in some very talented people, both professors and students, for work terms and research.”
Iris Dynamics made their first commercial sale to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA. They provided NASA with a flight yoke that was used to collect pilot data as part of a study to test the effectiveness of various human-machine interface designs. Lockheed Martin and Boeing followed as customers. Iris Dynamics has also shipped simulator units to the Victoria Flying Club and the Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron.
“For me, it feels full circle to help up-and-coming pilots since I learned to fly as an air cadet,” says Hagen.
What makes their technology unique and in demand is that it allows the human to feel—rather than merely observe—what is occurring in the operation of the machine.
In their Victoria office, McFadden and Hagen demonstrate with one of their devices: their Magnetic Suspension Joystick. Hagen adjusts dials as you manipulate the joystick. One moment you feel you are stirring molasses and the next you are clunking through the gears of a five-speed transmission.
Inside the box is one moving part: the magnetic base of the joystick suspended among four electromagnetic copper coils. Modulated by software algorithms, the coils’ magnetic fields exert precise forces on the stick. There are as many sensations as there are algorithms—and the algorithms are only limited by the imagination of engineers. As the joystick floats and glides within an electromagnetic field, the system operates silently, reliably and—key to their business model—cheaply. And the realistic, precision feedback is vital for applications, particularly for safety.
“Tactile information actually feeds back to the brain faster than visual or auditory information,” explains McFadden. “That’s why aircraft have ‘stick shakers’ to get a pilot’s attention when a stall is imminent. Fly-by-wire has removed pilots from the feel of the aircraft.”
Their technology returns the “feel” to the operator, such as changing wind over an aircraft’s wings, explains Hagen: “The big value is that it builds muscle memory, which is important for a pilot who must also focus on navigation and communication.”
At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, automotive industry attendees kept returning to Iris Dynamics exhibit. “The question of whether the car of the future will be fully autonomous or semi-autonomous has not been answered yet,” observes McFadden. “A joystick may replace the steering wheel as the interface.”
Potential applications for their ideas include remotely-operated vehicles, heavy equipment, industrial automation and healthcare. The team is currently focused on finding the right partners to help them enter these fields.
In this story
Publication: The Torch