Courtesy of the University of Minnesota

For decades, scientists have been developing brain-computer linkages they hope will enable people to manipulate objects hands free. Duke neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis reported a few years ago that a monkey fitted with implanted electrodes could use its brainpower to control the walking patterns of a robot . Less invasive, more commercial efforts include electroencephalalography (EEG) headsets that let players control video games via neural signals .

Now a team of University of Minnesota biomedical engineers has demonstrated the ability to fly a remote-controlled helicopter through hoops simply by thinking about different hand gestures. The person navigating the four-blade helicopter—also known as a quadcopter—wears an EEG cap laden with 64 electrodes, which detect electric currents produced by neurons in the brain’s motor cortex. The electrodes send signals to a computer, which translates the signal pattern into a command that is then sent to the helicopter via Wi-Fi.

Courtesy of the University of Minnesota

As the researchers explain in the video below, they asked subjects to imagine, for example, making a fist with their right hand to make the aircraft turn to the right. If the subjects imagined making a fist with both hands, the aircraft rose. Their research was published Tuesday in IOP Publishing's Journal of Neural Engineering.

The ultimate goal of all these brain-computer interface efforts is to develop robotic prosthetics that can help restore the autonomy of paralyzed patients or those suffering from neurodegenerative disorders, says Bin He, a University of Minnesota professor of biomedical engineering. He adds: “We envision they will use this technology to help control wheelchairs, artificial limbs or other devices.”