A team at the University of Minnesota, led by biomedical engineering professor Bin He, have learned to use their thoughts to steer a flying robot around a gym, making it turn, rise, dip, and even sail through a ring. Brain waves (EEG) are picked up by the electrodes of an EEG cap on the scalp.
The system works thanks to the geography of the motor cortex—the area of the cerebrum that governs movement. When we move, or think about a movement, neurons in the motor cortex produce tiny electric currents. Thinking about a different movement activates a new assortment of neurons.
Monitoring electrical activity from the brain, the 64 scalp electrodes of the EEG cap report the signals (or lack of signals) they detect to a computer, which translates the pattern into an electronic command. Volunteers first learned to use thoughts to control the 1-D movement of a cursor on a screen, then 2-D cursor movements and 3-D control of a virtual helicopter.
Now it’s the real deal, controlling an actual flying robot—formally, an AR [augmented reality] drone. The team’s computers interface with the WiFi controls that come with the robot; after translating EEG brain signals into a command, the computer sends the command to the robot by WiFi.
The technology, pioneered by He, may someday allow people robbed of speech and mobility by neurodegenerative diseases to regain function by controlling artificial limbs, wheelchairs, or other devices. And it’s completely noninvasive:
A report on the technology has been published in the Journal of Neural Engineering.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.