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The Edge of Science

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Driving Your Car or Fly Your Plane Via Brainwaves

May 28th 2014

Eye biometrics

Scientists from the Technical Universities of Berlin and Munich have demonstrated that an airplane can be flown without touching the yoke - controlled only by the brain of the pilot. In an experiment, the scientists wired the brain of the test person with an electroencephalograph through a dozens of electrodes. An algorithm developed at the Berlin TU deciphered the electrical signals from the brain and transformed them into control instructions for an airplane - actually it was a flight simulator with a rather realistic visual representation of the environment and with real control elements. However, the test person did not even touch these control elements, instead he "flew" the plane by means of the signals right from his brain in a demonstration.

The demonstration was part of the Brainflight research project. Within this project, a team around professor Florian Holzapfel from the Munich Technical University tries to find ways to allow humans to directly interact with machines - in this case an airplane, tomorrow perhaps a car. For the time being however, flying is in the focus of the project. "Our long-term vision is to enable more people to fly", said aerospace engineer Tim Fricke who oversees the project. "Steering an aircraft through thoughts could make it much easier to fly. The workload of pilots could be reduced, which in turn would increase the safety level. In addition, pilots could get more freedom of action and take over other manual tasks in the cockpit".

The scientists now achieved a first breakthrough: They were able to demonstrate that brain-steered flying is possible. And with surprisingly high precision, they pointed out. Seven test persons participated in the flight simulator tests. They had very different levels of experience and knowledge with flying - one of the test persons never before has been on the pilot's seat. They were able to control the simulator at a level of exactness and precision that parts of it would have met the requirements of a pilot's flight examination. "One of the test persons flew eight out of ten given headings with a deviation of just ten degrees", Fricke reports. Even the landings under poor visibility conditions were achieved with good quality - one of the test pilots landed just a few metres off the centre line.

In the next step, the Munich scientists will focus on the question how the requirements to control system and flight dynamics of airplanes have to be modified to take brain control as a new way to fly the plane into account. Normally, pilots can feel counterforces of these controls when flying a real airplane; this kind of feedback ceases to exist if the plane is controlled just through thoughts. For this reason, the researchers are trying to find alternatives. This is particularly important to avoid overstressing the plane.

The brain-computer interface, by the way, recognises only clearly defined signals associated to steering the plane - a matter of signal processing. No thought-reading is possible, the scientists say.

But this would not be necessary anyway. It would be enough to create a brain interface that allows people to control their cars in the same way the test persons steered their virtual plane. After all, vehicles have fewer degrees of freedom than airplanes.


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