It reads like something out of a sci-fi flick, but new technology created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has recently enabled a paralyzed woman to fly an F-35 fighter jet and a single-engine Cessna in a simulator using only her mind. Speaking in Washington, DC at the recent New America Foundation’s Future of War forum on February 24th, DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar revealed to the crowd that 55 year-old Jan Scheuermann, who has suffered paralysis since 2003 due to a neurodegenerative condition, was able to fly a Joint Strike Fighter simulator without the use of any joystick or handheld device.
“We can now see a future where we can now free the brain from the limitations of the human body,” Prabhakar said, “and I think we can all imagine amazing good things and amazing potentially bad things on the other side of that door.”
In 2012, Scheuermann volunteered to undergo surgery to have two small probes placed on the surface of her brain — the left motor cortex. Her neurosignals were then picked up, enabling Scheuermann to control a pair of left and right prosthetic arms using only her mind.
“Jan was implanted with small electrode grids containing 96 tiny contact points in the region of her brain that would normally control her right arm and hand movement,” Jared B. Adams, DARPA’s director of media relations, told FoxNews.com. “Each electrode point picked up signals from an individual neuron, which were then relayed to a computer to identify the firing patterns associated with particular observed or imagined movements, such as raising or lowering the arm, or turning the wrist.”
Jan would watch animations and imagine the robotic prosthetic arm’s movements as a team of researchers recorded the signals sent from her brain.
“She thinks [and then] she can shake your hand or offer you a stack of cookies,” Prabhakar told the crowd. “It’s amazing functionality for someone who’s been paralyzed for this time.”
However, it wasn’t long until she set her sights a little higher.
“Jan decided she wanted to try flying a Joint Strike simulator,” Prabhakar said. “So, Jan got to fly in the simulator.”
Most pilots who train in simulators have to use a joystick to control the plane’s movements. Not so with Jan — all she had to do was simply think about piloting the jet and it would move accordingly. DARPA has been working with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center on the project, and it seems that, at least so far, the sky’s the limit.
As for whether or not pilots will soon be able to control physical aircraft with their minds, Prabhakar said it’s a long way off, while also noting the technology’s possibly dangerous future implications.
“I think we’re a long way from [piloting physical jets with mind control] becoming real, but we’ve opened this door,” Prabhakar said. “You can see some amazing, positive things, but of course we’re talking about crossing some major ethical boundaries when you start talking about people being able to [utilize] this very different way of connecting their brains to the rest of the world. So we think it’s an important time to think about what those next steps in research are going to be to engage in a bigger community.”
Though mind-controlled physical jet flying remains far off in the future, another cool facet of this technology, which is straight out of films like “Starship Troopers” and “Robocop,” may be here before we know it.
“The research Jan was involved in is part of the agency's Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, which is ongoing and aims to continue increasing functionality of systems so service members with arm loss may one day have the option of choosing to return to duty,” Adams added.
This may mean that mind-controlled robotic replacement prosthetics could be ready for issue in the near future. Adams said that the dexterous hand capabilities developed under the program have already been applied to small bomb disposal robotics, which should help keep soldiers out of life-and-limb-threatening situations.