Flying Machine Arena

A portable space devoted to autonomous flight


The Flying Machine Arena stopped operating at the end of 2019.

Measuring up to 10 x 10 x 10 meters, the Flying Machine Arena (FMA) consisted of a high-precision motion capture system, a wireless communication network, and custom software executing sophisticated algorithms for estimation and control.

Projects Completed

Papers Published

Public Exhibitions

Spin-offs Created

The motion capture system of the Flying Machine Arena could locate multiple objects in the space at rates exceeding 200 frames per second. While this may seem extremely fast, the objects of interest could move at speeds in excess of 10 m/s, resulting in displacements of over 5 cm between successive snapshots. This information was fused with other data and models of the system dynamics to predict the state of the objects in the future.

This knowledge was used to determine which commands the vehicles should execute next in order to achieve their desired behavior such as performing high-speed flips, balancing objects, building structures, or engaging in a game of Paddle Ball. The system then wirelessly broadcasted the commands to the vehicles, which were executed with the aid of onboard computers and sensors such as rate gyros and accelerometers.

Although various objects could fly in the Flying Machine Arena, the predominant machine of choice was the quadcopter due to its agility, mechanical simplicity and robustness, and ability to hover. Furthermore, the quadcopter is a great platform for research in adaptation and learning: it has well-understood, low-order first-principle models near hover while being difficult to characterize when performing high-speed maneuvers due to complex aerodynamic effects. These effects were handled with algorithms that initially use first-principle models to approximate what a vehicle should do to perform a given task, then learn and adapt based on flight data.

A Sandbox Environment for Research

The Flying Machine Arena was used in a range of projects carried out at the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control at ETH Zürich and other research laboratories. Thanks to its versatile nature, it was employed both as an experimental test bed in its own right and to validate other experiments.

    A Sight to be Seen

    The flying machines developed in the Flying Machine Arena were featured in multiple diverse venues including multiple TED events, Zurich Minds, Google IO, Hannover Messe, the FRAC Centre, and even a joint effort with Cirque du Soleil.


      Innovations that came out of research in the Flying Machine Arena directly led to spin-off companies Verity, which specializes in drones that carry out supply chain activities, and Fotokite, which creates tethered drones for public safety purposes.


        Prof. Dr. Raffaello D’Andrea
        ETH Zurich
        Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control
        Sonneggstrasse 3
        8092 Zurich


        If you are interested in joining Raffaello D’Andrea’s research team, please visit the IDSC website – linked below – at ETH Zurich for more information.

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