Researchers are now using US Department of Defence funding to explore what could be the next big step in drone technology: mind control.
Daniel Pack, who manages the Unmanned Systems Laboratory at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told Business Insider that his goal is to be able to create entire groups of drones controlled with a simple thought.
Thanks to a $US300,000 grant from the Office of the Secretary of Defence, professors and graduate students from various departments at UTSA are exploring how brain waves can be translated into commands for nearby drones. The US Army Research Laboratory was also involved in some of the funding for the research, which will run until spring 2016.
A separate, $US400,000 grant provided brain-wave measuring equipment — electroencephalography, or EEG — which includes a set of electrodes. Placed on the subject’s scalp (see below), these pick up on the wearer’s brain waves, which vary depending on thought processes or activities. Machines are programmed to translate specific brain waves into commands, meaning that they can be controlled just by thinking.
Researchers claim the technology could help make soldiers more mobile and less dependent on static infrastructure. It could make some elements of drone infrastructure obsolete, as pilots would no longer need a ground station to relay instructions to the vehicles flying overhead.
The UTSA team even “hope[s] to eliminate the need for ground stations” altogether. It imagines drones that would be able to “extract vehicle control signals directly from brain signals of a soldier operating one or more aerial vehicles.”
The technology for inputting commands with thoughts alone — known as brain-computing interface, or BCI — is less speculative than it seems.
Back in 2006, a paralysed man was able, with some difficulty, to move a mouse cursor on a computer, and even open and close a prosthetic hand. He wore the same type of scalp electrode technology that UTSA’s researchers now have their hands on.
And the University of Minnesota even released a video last year showcasing a mind-controlled drone manoeuvring through large hoops in a gym.
The study claimed to demonstrate “for the first time the ability to control a flying robot in 3D physical space using noninvasive scalp recorded EEG in humans.”
Bin He, who led the Minnesota study, told Business Insider he didn’t have any military application in mind when he decided to undertake his research. A quadcopter drone was used only because it offered a showcase for motion control in three dimensions.
Another study led by He and published last month showed that test subjects with experience in yoga or meditation were better at controlling a mouse cursor with their minds — again using brain-wave sensors — than people without that background (this another possible reason for the US military to continue its meditation program).
The mechanics of piloting a mind-controlled drone are amazingly simple, even if the technology behind it is not. In the University of Minnesota video, one of the graduate students involved in the project explains that making the drone turn is as simple as anticipating making a fist with your left or right hand.
Commanding the drones can be done almost by instinct alone. Alex Doud, who spent seven years working with He, told Business Insider the technology reacts “in that intense anticipatory moment where you’re not actually sending activation signals to your muscle.” It works off of the same mental flinching required of an activity like a child’s hand-slap game, he said.
A similar approach was used by Tim Fricke, who was involved in the intra-European “Brainflight”, the results of which were published earlier this year. Users were able to pilot a virtual plane in a simulated cockpit with brain signals linked to the movement of their hands.
That’s not the route the University of Texas at San Antonio is planning on taking with its own research.
Instead of translating specific brain waves (like those emitted when you intend to clench your hand) into commands for the drone, Mr. Pack and his team want to make the interaction more direct, without the need for a what Fricke calls “motor imagery.”
“There’s a big difference between those two things. One is indirect control,” Pack said, while his team “is really trying to understand the interaction between humans and machines.”
Ideally, drone operators would simply be willing the machines under their control into action.
Fricke told Business Insider that flying a drone could be as seamless as that most emblematic of instinctive, unthinking activities: “It’s like riding a bike,” he says. “You learn it only once but you can do it your whole life.”
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