The Future is Here: Mind-Controlled Airplanes

screen-shot-2014-05-27-at-10-39-41-am.pngBrainwaves can now be used to control an impressive number of things these days: prosthetics, computers, quadroptors, and even cars. But recent research released by the Technische Universität München (TUM) in Germany indicates that they might also be used to flying an aircraft. Using a simple EEG cap that read their brainwaves, a team of researchers demonstrated that thoughts alone could navigate a plane.

Using seven people for the sake of their experiment, the research team hooked them all up to a cap containing dozens of electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes. They then sat them down in a flight simulator and told them to steer the plane using their thoughts alone. The cap read the electrical signals from their brains and an algorithm then translated those signals into computer commands. to the researchers, the accuracy with which the test subjects stayed on course was what was truly impressive. Not to mention the fact that the study participants weren’t all pilots and had varying levels of flight experience, with one having no experience at all. And yet, of the seven participants, all performed well enough to satisfy some of the criteria for getting a pilot’s license. Several of the subjects also managed to land their planes under poor visibility.

The research was part of an EU-funded program called ” Brainflight.” As Tim Fricke, an aerospace engineer who heads the project at TUM, explained:

A long-term vision of the project is to make flying accessible to more people. With brain control, flying, in itself, could become easier. This would reduce the work load of pilots and thereby increase safety. In addition, pilots would have more freedom of movement to manage other manual tasks in the cockpit.

prosthetic_originalWith this successful test under their belts, the TU München scientists are focusing in particular on the question of how planes can provide feedback to their “mind pilots”. Ordinarily, pilots feel resistance in steering and must exert significant force when they are pushing their aircraft to its limits, and hence rely upon to gauge the state of their flight. This is missing with mind control, and must be addressed before any such system can be adapted to a real plane.

In many ways, I am reminded of the recent breakthroughs being made in mind-controlled prosthetics. After succeeding in creating prosthetic devices that could convert nerve impulses into controls, the next step became creating devices that could stimulate nerves in order to provide sensory feedback. Following this same developmental path, mind-controlled flight could become viable within a few years time.

Mind-controlled machinery, sensory feedback… what does this sound like to you?