You may have had remote controlled airplanes growing up, but they probably weren't as cool as the quadcopter. This tiny helicopter looks a lot like a toy, but it's really a high-tech robot controlled exclusively by human thought.
Developed by a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota, the four-blade helicopter, or quadcopter, can be quickly and accurately controlled for a sustained amount of time using the electrical impulses associated with a subject's thoughts.
The team used a noninvasive technique known as electroencephalography (EEG) to record the electrical brain activity of five different subjects. Each subject was fitted with a cap equipped with 64 electrodes, which sent signals to the quadcopter over a WiFi network.
The subjects were positioned in front of a screen that relayed images of the quadcopter's flight through an on-board camera, allowing them to see the course the way a pilot would. The plane, which was driven with a pre-set forward moving velocity, was then controlled by the subject's thoughts.
By imagining that they were using their right hand, left hand and both hands together, subjects controlled the flight path of the plane. If they imagined raising their left hand, for example, the plane turned left. If they imagined raising their hands together, the plane lifted higher in the air.
'For the first time, humans are able to control the flight of flying robots using just their thoughts.'
- Bin He, lead scientist behind the study
Once they got the hang of it, subjects were able to fly the quadcopter through foam rings scattered around the indoor course.
"Our study shows that for the first time, humans are able to control the flight of flying robots using just their thoughts, sensed from noninvasive brain waves," said Bin He, lead scientist behind the study and a professor with the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering.
He and his fellow researchers plan on using the study to further their understanding of how a brain-computer interface (BCI) can help assist, augment or repair cognitive or sensory-motor functions in those suffering from paralysis or other disabilities.
"Our next goal is to control robotic arms using noninvasive brain wave signals," said He. "With the eventual goal of developing brain-computer interfaces that aid patients with disabilities or neurodegenerative disorders."
The University of Minnesota team isn't the only group of researchers making breakthroughs in the field of brain-controlled avionics. Scientists at the University of Essex in the U.K. are also working with researchers at NASA to create a BCI that can be used aboard a spacecraft simulator. The team hopes to one day use the interface to assist fatigued astronauts during space travel.
And last year, researchers at Zhejiang University in China were able to control a hovering drone using a commercial EEG headset, setting the stage for more advanced uses of this noninvasive brain technology in the future.