Brain-controlled drone takes flight from power of thought (video)

5 Jun 2013

Biomedical engineers from the University of Minnesota pictured during their flying drone experiment. Credit: College of Science and Engineering

Biomedical engineers have engineered a non-invasive system called a brain-computer interface that can apparently allow a person to fly and control a robot using only their thoughts.

The engineers, who are based at the University of Minnesota, got five people to perform the flying experiment with a four-blade helicopter, or quadcopter, with the goal of one day enabling people who are paralysed or with neurodegenerative disorders to control artificial limbs, wheelchairs or other devices.

Their findings have been published in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

The robot turned right and left, up and down and flew through a series of hoops all under command from a person who used their mind to control the drone.

Lead author Professor Bin He said the study shows that, for the first time, humans are able to control the flight of flying robots using just their thoughts, sensed from non-invasive brain waves.

Each of the five participants wore a cap that was fitted with 64 electrodes and the electroencephalography (EEG) technique was applied to record the electrical activity of their brains.

Facing away from the quadcopter, the subjects were asked to imagine different actions. For example if they thought about using their right hand this would instruct the drone to turn right.

The subjects were positioned in front of a screen which relayed images of the quadcopter’s flight through an on-board camera, allowing them to see which direction it was travelling in.
Brain signals were recorded by the cap and sent to the quadcopter over Wi-Fi.

“In previous work we showed that humans could control a virtual helicopter using just their thoughts. I initially intended to use a small helicopter for this real-life study; however, the quadcopter is more stable, smooth and has fewer safety concerns,” explained He.

The subjects then had to attempt to fly the quadcopter through foam rings suspended from a ceiling.

According to the engineers, this brain-computer interface experiment shows how a direct pathway between the brain and an external device can help human cognitive or sensory-motor functions.

“Our next goal is to control robotic arms using non-invasive brain wave signals, with the eventual goal of developing brain-computer interfaces that aid patients with disabilities or neurodegenerative disorders,” said He.

In the following video, you can check out how the participants in the study controlled the quadcopter using their thoughts.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic