How to Control a Swarm of Drones with Your Mind
Shane Laros posted on August 06, 2016 |
ASU researchers close to fulfilling a budding super-villain’s dream.
Fly, my pretties! (Image courtesy of Superstock.)
Fly, my pretties! (Image courtesy of Superstock.)
Ever dream of commanding a legion of robots to help you take over the world?

Of course not. Me neither. However, new research out of Arizona State University could inspire thoughts of super-villainy in even the most lawful of citizens.

Using a skullcap fitted with 128 electrodes wired to a computer, researchers are able to control multiple drones using human thought and vision to guide the quadcopters wirelessly.

The device records electrical brain activity and measures the movement of the drones based on parts of the brain that light up. This signal is monitored and sent to another computer that transmits a signal to the drones, making them move.

Panagiotis Artemiadis, director of the Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab and an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, has been working with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and U.S. Air Force to develop this technology.

A close-up of the drone controller’s human interface. (Image courtesy of ASU.)
A close-up of the drone controller’s human interface. (Image courtesy of ASU.)
Artemiadis has been working on brain-to-machine interfaces since 2009, but only recently made the leap to controlling more than one device.

“During the last two to three decades there has been a lot of research on single brain/machine interface, where you control a single machine,” he said. “What I didn’t know—or hypothesized—is that the brain cares about things we are not doing ourselves.”

“We don’t have a swarm we control,” he added. “We have hands and limbs and all that stuff, but we don’t control swarms. I was surprised the brain cares about that, and that the brain can adapt.”

Researchers have determined what parts of the brain are able to move the swarm and reduce cohesion of the group—that is, spread it out—but have not yet worked through issued commands such as swarming or defending an area.

This is because of the singular focus needed to move each member of the group. Distractions—such as thoughts of what to have for lunch—as well as fatigue and stress will hinder control of the drones.

“We tell the subject to think of two things,” Artemiadis said. “Focus on breathing, or we tell them to imagine closing their left hand into a fist.”

Because people’s brain signals change daily and everybody’s brain works differently, the system needs to be recalibrated often.

Eventually, Artemiadis and his team hope to move to a larger facility and expand the project by having multiple people controlling multiple robots.

 While the applications for this technology go beyond its practical military uses, there could be a real benefit in search-and-rescue operations or monitoring potentially dangerous areas. And even though the technology is far from ready for public use, the energy that hobbyists and researchers have put into drone development thus far could really change the way people think about UAVs.

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