Using (just) your brain to control a drone

Imagine using a brain-to-computer interface that enables people to control drones with their minds. It’s not science fiction anymore, and project BRAINFLIGHT is making it possible!

The BRAINFLIGHT project, the result of the shared belief of four organizations – TEKEVER (Project Coordinator – Portugal), Champalimaud Foundation (Portugal), Eagle Science (Netherlands) and Technische Universität München (Germany) – that aircraft can be directly controlled by the human brain, has accomplished several important results and is paving the way for having mind controlled drones.

During a public presentation in Lisbon (Portugal), TEKEVER and Champalimaud teams use high-performance electroencephalogram (EEG) systems to measure brain waves noninvasively, and then use specially conceived algorithms to convert brain signals into drone commands. The “drone operator”, wearing a cap that measures brain activity, influences the drone’s path using nothing but simple thoughts. Essentially, the electricity flowing through the pilot's brain acts as an input to the drone’s control system, in order to perform, on the air, a mission with objectives previously defined by the research team.  

“The project has successfully demonstrated that the use of the brain computer interface (BMI) on a simulator for the Diamond DA42 aircraft, where one pilot controlled the simulator through the BRAINLFIGHT system. We’ve also integrated the BMI the UAV ground systems and have successfully tested it in UAV simulators. We’re now taking it one step further, and performing live flight tests with the UAV.”, said Ricardo Mendes TEKEVER’s COO.

BRAINFLIGHT uses a multi-disciplinary approach of combining aeronautical systems engineering with neuro-science research. The project explores two different brain-computer interface (BCI) approaches. For this purpose, researchers have used the BCI system in a four seat, twin engine, propeller-driven aircraft simulator (the Diamond DA42). The final step in the project is the validation of the BCI approaches through control of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in real flight.

Ricardo Mendes, TEKEVER’s COO, said “this is an amazing high-risk and high-payoff project, with long-term impact that has already provided excellent results and will require further technology maturation. We truly believe that BRAINFLIGHT represents the beginning of a tremendous step change in the aviation field, empowering pilots and de-risking missions, and we’re looking forward to deliver these benefits to the market with highly innovative products.”

BRAINFLIGHT is a project with significant impacts, both in mid and long terms. If BCI is adopted in the future as a method of control for aircraft (both manned and remotely piloted) then the project will potentially benefit the entire pilot community (from ultralight and general aviation to commercial aviation). Through the operant BCI approach, we believe people will be able to pilot aircraft just like they perform everyday activities like walking or running. This will mean that pilots will be able to focus on higher cognitive activities while still being able to operate such a complex system as an aircraft (akin to how professional sportsmen can focus on the tactical aspects of movement without worrying about maintaining proficiency on the basic game skills for example). Pilots will reduce their workload and physically disabled people may benefit in the medium term by becoming able to pilot aircraft. In addition, one of the obvious areas of application of this technology is advanced prosthetics, enabling people with severe physical disabilities to interact with their surroundings in an easier way. Another possibility is the application of the project results to the control of other complex systems like automobiles, boats, trains or any other system that combines physical interactions necessary for its control with a need for greater attention and focus on instruments or surroundings.