In what may be a just a taste of what's possible when you merge robotics and neuroscience, researchers from Portugal's Brainflight project have successfully demonstrated a drone flight piloted by human thought.
The Brainflight project is led by Portuguese technology firm Tekever with the backing of several science organizations across Europe and follows in the footsteps of similar research efforts carried out around the globe. Back in 2012, researchers at Zhejiang University in China were able to demonstrate a mind-controlled drone by slapping a electroencephalogram (EEG) headset on subjects to measure their brainwaves. More recently, a project at the University of Minnesota saw pilots able to control quadcopters by imagining opening or closing their fists.
The Brainflight also uses an EEG cap, which is fitted with electrodes to monitor brainwaves. Purpose-built algorithms then translate these brain waves into control commands for the drone, determining a flight path based on the activity of the brain and a mission defined by the researchers prior to takeoff. The team tested out the system using flight simulators for both manned aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). It then proceeded to carry out live flight testing with the UAV.
After a period of training their brains, the pilots were instructed to focus on moving a small circle on a screen up and down, which commanded the drone to move left and right. So enthused was the team by the success of the technique, it hopes that it could one day even be used to control commercial aircraft.
"This is an amazing high-risk and high-payoff project, with long-term impact that has already provided excellent results and will require further technology maturation," says Tekever Chief Operating Officer, Ricardo Mendes. "We truly believe that Brainflight represents the beginning of a tremendous step change in the aviation field, empowering pilots and de-risking missions, and we’re looking forward to deliver these benefits to the market with highly innovative products."
The thought of a packed 747 cruising across the Pacific Ocean controlled by somebody's thoughts is a little unsettling, but the rationale behind wanting to expand the technique to manned flight may not be as pie in the sky as it seems. The team believes that the system has the potential to make piloting an aircraft as intuitive as a regular activities like walking and running, in turn freeing up brainpower for higher thinking while also making the profession accessible to those with physical disabilities.
Other possible applications for the technology, as noted by Tekever, include offering new ways for disabled people to interact with their environments and controlling other vehicles such as cars, boats and trains.