There's something uncanny about drones, those autonomous aeroplanes that kill insurgents and civilians — but mostly civilians — and anger the pants off many liberty-loving Americans. But drones aren't all bad. Outside of warzones, drones have been helping everyone from farmers to journalists, and now they're helping doctors too.
Imagine using a brain-to-computer interface that enables people to control the drones with their minds. You'd not only have an amazing cocktail party trick but also a slew of new knowledge about how the brain works. A team of well meaning researchers from the University of Minnesota are doing just that. They strapped noninvasive scalp electroencephalogram (EEG) devices onto some grad students and trained them to fly a quadcopter through very whimsical-looking obstacle course. Essentially, the electricity flowing through the pilot's brain, controlled the quadcopter.
The mechanics of the setup are pretty darn futuristic. Like other devices that serve as brain-to-computer interfaces, the hood used by the researchers puts sensors on the subject's scalp that detect the brain's electrical signals. Kelsey D. Atherton at Popular Science explains, "Clusters of activity, like thinking about making a fist with a right hand, generates a spark in a specific area of the brain." Sounds like something out of Tron right? "That spark gets translated through a computer into a quadrotor command ('turn right'). The command is then beamed to the quadrotor via WiFi." The computer that linked the brain to the quadcopter also used a special algorithm to keep the drone steady in the event of a weak signal. It took a little bit of training, but all five subjects completed the task with 90 per cent accuracy.
Despite the fear and disdain the word "drone" stirs up, the end goal of this project is undeniably noble. Rather than designing war machines, they hope to build tools for the disabled with this kind of technology. The Minnesota team is just a small part of a much larger effort to create mind-controlled machines that can do anything from help paralysed people walk to enabling blind people to see. Believe it or not, DARPA and the Pentagon are largely leading the effort by funding countless research projects. Perhaps as a result of the increased government funding, the last year or so of research feels like a watershed moment too, as great ideas start to become real-life experiments and even real-life tools.
The drone experiment is specifically interesting because it's three-dimensional. Most past experiments operate in two-dimensions, asking subjects to move a cursor or play a simple game on a screen, for instance. That third dimension changes everything because, well, the world is three dimensional and any cyborg-like devices invented would need to operate as such. The particular challenge of flying a quadcopter also require a bit more rigour, since you're not just moving something along a flat plane but rather up-down-forward-back-side-to-side.
Next, the team from the University of Minnesota will start working on a robotic arm that operates in three-dimensions. Meanwhile, the burgeoning group of drone hobbyists will surely be scrambling to get their hands on a mind-controlled drone. The military probably already has them, too, but it's safe to assume that not all of these robots are being sent to Afghanistan. Bear in mind that DARPA is a major funder of innovative research, some of which goes to war and some of which goes to progress. They did sort of invent the Internet, after all.