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How to Fly a Model Helicopter Using Only Your Thoughts


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.”


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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