Flying robot controlled by thought power

Professor Bin He and quadcopter
My vision for brain-computer interface research is to help all people; to help patients suffering from neuro-
degenerative diseases to restore lost functions, and to enhance functions in healthy members of the population.
Professor Bin He
A University of Minnesota team has developed a system which allows the user to control a flying robot using only the power of thought…

Back in February, ScienceOmega.com reported on the work of a University of Essex and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory research team on joint control of a virtual spacecraft using brain-computer interface (BCI) technology.

Now, researchers from the University of Minnesota have reported in IOP Publishing’s Journal of Neural Engineering that they have developed a non-invasive system which allows the user to control a flying robot with their mind. It is hoped that the technique could help those with disabilities or neurodegenerative diseases control wheelchairs or artificial limbs, for example.

Lead author Professor Bin He is director of the Biomedical Functional Imaging and Neuroengineering Laboratory in Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering.

"I have been working on non-invasive, brainwave-based brain-computer interface research to control movement for more than 10 years," Professor He told ScienceOmega.com. "Previously, we researched control of virtual objects on a computer screen, including controlling the flight of a virtual helicopter on a virtual University of Minnesota campus. About three years ago we started work on controlling the movement of a flying object in 3D space."

The system relies on electroencephalography (EEG), using a cap containing 64 electrodes to monitor the brainwaves of the user. Five subjects took part in the testing of the technique, with each successfully moving a quadcopter through a series of balloon hoops [as you can see in the video] while facing away from the device. To do so, they imagined moving their right hand to turn the robot right, their left hand to turn left, and both hands together to fall.



With the participants placed in front of a screen relaying images from a camera onboard the quadcopter, their brain signals were transmitted to it via WiFi.

The quadcopter is more stable than the type of small helicopter Professor He originally intended to use for the experiments, with fewer safety concerns and smoother flight. There were other reasons too for carrying out these tests with able-bodied subjects.

"It is easier to test in healthy subjects before testing in patients who may be severely injured," explained Professor He. "Secondly, my vision for brain-computer interface research is to help all people; to help patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases to restore lost functions, and to enhance functions in healthy members of the population."

In a control experiment, students operated the flying robot using a keyboard to allow comparisons with a standard method of control.

In Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming movie Pacific Rim, which is scheduled for release in UK cinemas on 12th July, Jaegers – huge robots controlled remotely by two pilots ‘whose minds are locked in a neural bridge’ – will battle it out against sea monsters called ‘Kaiju’. Just how likely is it that technology such as that being developed by Professor He’s group and the University of Essex/JPL team will be used to create advanced weaponry such as real-life Jaegers?

Students and quadcopter "The main goal is to help disabled patients to restore lost functions, or to extend the daily lives of everyone to dimensions we may not have thought of," stressed Professor He. "It is neither my intention nor goal to develop the technology for weaponry use."

The next step for the research team is to investigate how the technology they have developed could be implemented in the lives of disabled individuals. It’s also hoped that their findings could be used to help re-wire the brain circuitry of stroke patients. With this in mind, I asked Professor He what further obstacles will need to be overcome in order to make the technology more widely available.

"Our work signifies a big step towards our ultimate goal," he answered. "Further research is needed to shorten the training time and reliability of the technology for wider use."

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