Flying is most definitely a hands-on (and feet-on) job, but it may not always be that way. Turning science fiction into fact, researchers at the Institute for Flight System Dynamics of the Technische Universität München (TUM) and the TU Berlin are developing a way for pilots to control aircraft with their minds alone. According to the team, they have not only demonstrated that it’s possible, but that it can be done with a surprising degree of accuracy.
Though the idea of a mind-controlled airplane seems a bit magical, it’s actually based on “pure signal processing.” Part of the EU-funded project "Brainflight," the technology involves the pilot wearing a cap fitted with electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes. These pick up electrical impulses from the pilot’s brain, which are analyzed by an algorithm developed by TU Berlin, which in turn passes on only those brain impulses specifically defined as piloting commands.
Of course, the technology hasn't been tested on real planes (so there’s no need to look nervously at the sky), but in a flight simulator. Seven subjects with different levels of flight experience, including a complete novice, took part and the results were surprising even to the team. The subjects controlled the simulated aircraft with such precision that it would have fulfilled part of the requirements for a flying license. One person kept the simulated aircraft within 10 degrees of a heading 8 out of 10 times, and others landed in poor visibility with remarkable precision without ever touching the controls.
According to the team, the technology still has a long way to go before it can take to the air. For one thing, it lacks the physical feedback that is an important part in telling a pilot if the aircraft is pushing the envelope as the loads become too great. The team is therefore working on some alternative form of feedback.
"A long-term vision of the project is to make flying accessible to more people," says aerospace engineer and TUM project leader Tim Fricke. "With brain control, flying, in itself, could become easier. This would reduce the workload of pilots and thereby increase safety. In addition, pilots would have more freedom of movement to manage other manual tasks in the cockpit."