It's official. Science is the coolest thing ever now that a group of engineers in Minnesota has figured out how to pilot a helicopter with one's mind. Featured in today's edition of Journal of Neural Engineering, the technology will hopefully be adapted this for future robots that can help restore the autonomy of paralyzed victims.

"Our study shows that for the first time, humans are able to control the flight of flying robots using just their thoughts, sensed from noninvasive brain waves," said lead author Dr. Bin He, a biomedical engineer at the University of Minnesota.

Unlike other attempts at mind-controlled robotics, this technique doesn't require physically inserting a probe into brain.

Instead it uses a special head cap to translate brain activity into remote-controlled motion. The cap is an electroencephalography (EEG) scanner that measures electrical activity emitted from the brain's motor cortex.

The EEG cap is linked to a computer that processes patterns in brain activity and sends it via wi-fi to a robotic helicopter, called a "quadcopter" for its four blades. This link from mind to machine is known as a brain-computer interface.

These findings are a follow-up to a 2011 study that used a brain-computer interface to pilot virtual aircraft in a video game.

"In previous work we showed that humans could control a virtual helicopter using just their thoughts. I initially intended to use a small helicopter for this real-life study; however, the quadcopter is more stable, smooth and has fewer safety concerns," continued Professor He.

While simple, remote-controlled toy choppers have used EEG technology in the past, this new system is a tremendous leap forward in terms of range of motion and flight agility.

When the pilot imagines making a fist with his or her left or right hand, the quadcopter turns in that direction. Pretending to clench both fists generates vertical movement.

After a short training session, five subjects (three female, two male) were able to pilot the helicopter through a series of aerial hoops hung from a gymnasium ceiling.

A camera on board the quadcopter relayed video of its view to the computer screen, so the pilots could control the aircraft without looking directly at it.

Brain-computer interfaces are the hot topic in prosthetics and could yield full-fledged robotic surrogates. Yesterday a French and Japanese team of engineers announced they had developed a system that could control a robot capable of lifting objects.

So far the range of motion with mind-controlled robotics has been limited. Dr. He's study is tremenduous step forward in that regard, given that the helicopter could be guided in 3-dimensional space.

These systems may be adapted in the future to repair other cognitive or sensory deficits, such as deafness or blindness.

"Our next goal is to control robotic arms using noninvasive brain wave signals, with the eventual goal of developing brain-computer interfaces that aid patients with disabilities or neurodegenerative disorders," continued Professor He.

Source: LaFleur K, Cassady K, Doud A, Shades K, Rogin E, He B. Quadcopter control in three-dimensional space using a noninvasive motor imagery based brain-computer interface. J. Neural Eng. 2013.

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