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Body + BrainBody & Brain

Mind-controlled Robots

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next

Devin Powell, writing for Nature:

A model helicopter can now be steered through an obstacle course by thought alone, researchers report today in the Journal of Neural Engineering . The aircraft’s pilot operates it remotely using a cap of electrodes to detect brainwaves that are translated into commands.

Ultimately, the developers of the mind-controlled copter hope to adapt their technology for directing artificial robotic limbs and other medical devices. Today’s best neural prosthetics require electrodes to be implanted in the body and are thus reserved for quadriplegics and others with disabilities severe enough justify invasive surgery.

It’s not the first system to use brain waves to control a robot, but it is the most sophisticated to date.

The control system isn’t what you might think—it’s much closer to how a person might interface with a prosthetic limb rather than a quadcopter. Instead of thinking “turn left,” the pilot imagines making a fist with his or her left hand. It all happens noninvasively via an electroencephalography (EEG) cap.

This team isn’t the only one working on controlling machines with our thoughts. You can learn about other projects in the NOVA scienceNOW episode “What Will the Future Be Like?”. Skip to chapter 3 (which starts at 28:58) to learn how EEG caps read and interpret our brain waves to make computers respond and robotic arms move.