With This Interface One Person Can Control a Swarm of Drones With Their Mind

July 18, 2016 | Reece Alvarez

EEG headset detects electrical signals in the brain to control drones
Photo credit: Screenshot from video by Arizona State University

Funded by the US Department of Defense, ASU researchers are on the frontier of mind-controlled devices.

Just as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have ushered in an increasingly wireless world for devices, advances in brain imaging and mapping are allowing for ambitious experiments and achievements in the effort to wirelessly connect the mind with the body and more.

In just the past 12 months Chinese and British researchers have laid the groundwork for mind-controlled cars, and American universities have reached major milestones by restoring some motor skills for an amputee and a quadriplegic.

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In April, researchers at the University of Florida held the world’s first, though very limited, official mind-controlled drone race using their brain-computer interface (BCI) system. The system uses a electroencephalogram (EEG) headset to detect the electrical signals in the brain associated with certain thoughts, such as pushing an object forward or to the left or right. The user controls the drone by thinking about moving an object displayed in the computer program and the electrical signals are then translated by the program into commands for the drone.

Student concentrates on moving a drone with his mind

Although drone racing is just beginning to gain momentum, mind-controlled racing is right behind it. Credit: Screenshot from University of Florida video.

As scientists tend to do, the research into mind-controlled drones has been taken a step further with a recent development at Arizona State University (ASU) that is enabling a single user to operate multiple drones through thought.

“There has not been a lot of research on how one single human can control multiple robots,” said  Panagiotis Artemiadis, director of the Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab at ASU.

“We started with the idea of human swarm interaction; we record it from the brain,” he said in a video produced by ASU. “We actually saw that the brain really cares about collective behaviors of swarms and now we know where to record from and what to see from the brain signals in order to decode that to collective behaviors for aerial vehicles and swarms of robots.”

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According to university’s publication ASU Now, Artemiadis, who is also an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at ASU, has been working on linking the human brain with machines since 2009.

He has been working on mind-controlled drone swarms for the last two years with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), which may allude to possible military applications since DARPA has announced its intentions to develop swarms of drones that can be used in warfare under its Gremlins project.

Artist's concept of a drone swarm for the Gremlins project

An artist’s illustration of DARPA’s military application for drone swarms under its Gremlins program. Credit: Courtesy of DARPA

In the lab Artemiadis and his team have displayed limited mind-control of both flying and ground-based drones simultaneously.

He describes a variety of possible future applications for the mixed drone teams including aerial drones landing on ground-based drones to recharge or physically transfer information too sensitive to be transmitted wirelessly or even using the aerial drones to lift ground drones across challenging environments.

According to ASU Now, Artemiadis will expand his research to include multiple swarms under the control of multiple people and sees the drones “performing complex operations, such as search-and-rescue missions.”

“The goal for the next couple of years is to actually have now a hybrid team of both ground vehicles, mobile robots and aerial vehicles — quadrotors — that will collaborate with each other,” he said. “We want to do that with tens, even go to 100 robots.”

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