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Researchers unveil mind-controlled flying robots

Mind your thoughts -- you could be steering a flying robot into a wall.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering have developed a technique that lets people control unmanned aerial vehicles with their mind.

The noninvasive method doesn't require implanting an object, like a computer chip to measure brain activity. Researchers used a technique called electroencephalography (EEG), which is a unique brain-computer interface that attaches to a person's head, and records the electrical activity of a subject's brain using an EEG cap fitted with 64 electrodes.

Researchers say the system works because of the location of the brain's motor cortex -- the part of the cerebrum that governs movement. When a person thinks about different movements, it stimulates a new assortment of neurons, or nerve cells.

"Our study shows that for the first time, humans are able to control the flight of flying robots using just their thoughts sensed from a noninvasive skull cap," Bin He, University of Minnesota professor and lead author of the study, said in a news release. "It works as good as invasive techniques used in the past."

During the study, a person wearing the EEG cap sat facing away from a quadcopter and was asked to imagine using their right hand, left hand and both hands together. The researchers say the movements would instruct the quadcopter to turn right, left, lift and then fall, respectively. The subject's brain signals were recorded by the cap and sent to the flying robot over Wi-Fi.

The quadcopter was pre-programmed with a forward motion and was controlled only with the subject's mind. The controls were precise enough for the quadcopter to fly through large rings suspended from a gymnasium ceiling.

Ideally, the researchers would like the technology to be used to help people with disabilities interact with the world.

"It may even help patients with conditions like autism or Alzheimer's disease or help stroke victims recover. We're now studying some stroke patients to see if it'll help rewire brain circuits to bypass damaged areas," Karl LaFleur, engineering student and co-author of the paper, said in a news release.

The University of Minnesota's study was primarily funded by the National Science Foundation. The full research paper is available in the August issue of the Journal of Neural Engineering.