The future may very well be…now. Researchers at the University of Minnesota have successfully harnessed human thought to remotely control a quadcopter, a variation on the helicopter with four arms and four blades that allow for more precise movement. While it’s not quite telekinesis, it’s a technologically enabled equivalent—a complex machine controlled by the human mind.
The intersection of the human brain and remote controls has long been explored as a potential way for the physically handicapped to be re-enabled through the use of machines. Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) work by recording and interpreting the brain's electrical signals and using them to control external devices like artificial limbs.
Basically, when your brain thinks “left,” an electric signal flows through and across your brain and scalp, is interpreted by sensors, and is then translated by a computer to actively turn a machine to the left.
The researchers were surprised that their experiment was so successful, said study author Bin He, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota. “This is the first time a noninvasive BCI can accomplish such demanding tasks with complexity,” He told Healthline.
Five human subjects, three women and two men between the ages of 21 and 28, were given an initial training to get them used to using a one-dimensional and two-dimensional control system. Then, they progressed to controlling the movement of a virtual helicopter, after which they were tested with a real AR Drone quadcopter that they flew safely through several foam rings suspended from the ceiling.
The BCI used in this study recorded electroencephalograms (EEGs), or the electrical signals of neurons firing in the brain, using a cap placed on the scalp. Study participants were seated in a comfortable chair facing a computer monitor in a standard college gym. A 64-channel EEG cap was fitted to their heads, which read the electric signals flowing across their scalp as they controlled the AR Drone. The quadcopter received a consistent “forward” command, and the participants turned and maneuvered the device to fly through the foam rings.
“The subjects were successful in achieving accurate control of the quadcopter in 3D real space,” the researchers wrote.
BCI technology has the potential to help patients suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative condition that results in the loss of motor skills that control speech, swallowing, and limb movement. Although there is no cure for ALS, a BCI-controlled device could enable patients who have lost limb control to move again, along with patients who are disabled from other ailments, such as spinal cord injuries.
“The study demonstrated the complexity a noninvasive BCI can do, which is needed for future BCI systems helping disabled patients,” He said.
Before He's BCI is available to the public, however, more tests must be conducted to ensure that both able-bodied and disabled people can easily and reliably operate the controls.
“The reliability is an important issue before wide applications. Another issue is to reduce training time needed to use the BCI,” He said. In the future, BCIs may very well open doors for the previously disabled, but first they must be accurate enough not to hit a telephone pole along the way.