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While it sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, it looks like mind-powered airplanes could very well be in the near future. At the Institute for Flight System Dynamics of the Technische Universität München (TUM), scientists are testing a mind-powered airplane, where the pilot wears a white cap with numerous cables attached to it. Working for Professor Florian Holzapfel, scientists are researching ways in which brain-controlled flight might work in the EU-funded project “Brainflight”. The long-term vision of Brainflight is to make flying accessible to more people; with brain control, flying would become infinitely easier, reducing the workload of pilots and increasing safety. Pilots would also have more freedom of movement to manage other manual tasks in the cockpit.
The scientists have recently logged their first breakthrough, where they succeeded in demonstrating that brain-controlled flight is indeed possible, with astounding precision. Seven different subjects took part in the flight simulator tests. These subjects had varying levels of flight experience, including one person with no practical cockpit experience whatsoever. The accuracy with which the test subjects stayed on course by merely thinking commands would have in part sufficed to fulfill the requirements of a flying license test. One subject was able to follow eight out of ten target headings with a deviation of only 10 degrees, while several of the subjects managed the landing approach under poor visibility. One test pilot was even able to land within a few meters of the centerline!
At the current moment, TU München scientists are focusing in particular on how the requirements for the control system and flight dynamics need to be altered to accommodate the new control method. Pilots typically feel resistance in steering, and need to exert significant force when the loads induced on the aircraft became too large. This feedback is missing when using brain control, therefore the researchers are looking for alternative methods of feedback to signal when the envelope is pushed too hard.
In order for humans and machines to communicate, brain waves of the pilots are measured using electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes connected to a cap. An algorithm developed by scientists from the Department of Biological Psychology and Neuroergonomics at the Berlin Institute of Technology allows the program to decipher electrical potentials and then convert them into useful control commands. Only the very clearly-defined electrical brain impulses required for control are recognized by the brain-computer interface. This is pure signal processing, and therefore, according to researchers, mind reading is not possible. Nonetheless, it seems like when the mind rambles, as it inevitably does, it could interfere with the controls. But I’m interested to see how this develops.