Awesome news! 🙂 (from this website)
University of Minnesota researchers have been able to control a small helicopter using only their minds, pushing the potential of a technology that could be used to help paralyzed or motion-impaired people interact with the world around them.
The controls for the mini-vehicle, which looks and flies much like any remote controlled helicopter, are otherwise fairly simple: if you want it to go up, think about it going up. If you want it to go down, think about it going down. There have been other brain controlled devices before, but the project created by Professor Bin He’s team offers extremely smooth control — and doesn’t require drilling holes in your head. “It’s completely non-invasive. Nobody has to have a chip implanted in their head!” said Brad Edelman, a graduate student working on the project.
The technology used is an electroencephalography (EEG) cap with 64 electrodes that fits over the head of the person controlling the helicopter. The researchers map the controller’s brain activity while they perform certain tasks (for example, making a fist or looking up). They then map those patterns to controls in the helicopter. If the researchers map “go up” to a clenched fist, the copter goes up. After that, the copter will go up automatically when the controller clenches a fist.
Of course, the brain patterns can be more subtle than fist clenching and the process can be trained so that no physical actions are necessary. Usually, to get even finer control over devices via brain power, the scientists need to dig deeper. Literally. With devices installed into the brain directly, fine motor control over things such as computer cursors is possible. However, the University of Minnesota test shows that this brain invasion may not be needed except in very specific cases. The control is precise enough take the helicopter through a relatively complex obstacle course.
Professor He, the team leader, feels that the non-invasive approach has a far broader appeal for people who don’t want people cutting into their skulls. “My entire career is to push for noninvasive 3-D brain-computer interfaces, or BCI,” He said in a release. “[Researchers elsewhere] have used a chip implanted into the brain’s motor cortex to drive movement of a cursor [across a screen] or a robotic arm. But here we have proof that a noninvasive BCI from a scalp EEG can do as well as an invasive chip.” For He, this distinction is important, because he sees it as the best way to popularize the technology. “The ultimate application really is to benefit disabled patients who cannot move or patients that suffer with movement disorders,” Prof He told the BBC. “We want to to control a wheelchair, and turn on the TV, and most importantly — this is my personal dream — to develop a technology to use the subject’s intention to control an artificial limb in that way, and make it as natural as possible.”
The technology isn’t just for people who have lost normal function in their bodies, Proffessor He also sees the technology as something that could “enhance function beyond what we can accomplish,” for everyday people. There are still some issues with the technology as it stands. The five subjects the researchers tested were only able to control the helicopter with about 90% accuracy. That’s high, but not perfect for tasks which need more precision. Additionally, there was a slight latency between the thought input and the copter reacting. “I think the potential for BCI is very broad,” He said in a release. “Next, we want to apply the flying robot technology to help disabled patients interact with the world. It may even help patients with conditions like stroke or Alzheimer’s disease. We’re now studying some stroke patients to see if it’ll help rewire brain circuits to bypass damaged areas.”