Brain-controlled flight

Print edition : August 08, 2014

Simulating brain-controlled flying at the Institute for Flight System Dynamics, TUM. Photo: A. Heddergott/TUM

IN work carried out as part of a European Union-funded project called “Brainflight”, scientists of the Technische Universitat Munchen (TUM) and the Technische Universitat Berlin (TUB) demonstrated the feasibility of flying with amazing precision using brain control alone (and no hands). Pilots of the future may be able to control their aircraft by merely thinking commands.

A long-term vision of the project, according to Tim Fricke, who heads the project at the TUM, is to make flying accessible to more people. “With brain control, flying, in itself, could become easier. This would reduce the workload of pilots and thereby increase safety. In addition, pilots would have more freedom of movement to manage other manual tasks in the cockpit.”

Seven subjects took part in the flight simulator tests. They had varying levels of flight experience, including one person without any practical cockpit experience whatsoever. The accuracy with which the test subjects stayed on course by merely thinking commands would have sufficed, in part, to fulfil the requirements of a flying licence test. Several of the subjects also managed the landing approach under poor visibility. One test pilot even landed within only few metres of the centre line.

Normally, pilots feel resistance in steering and must exert significant force when the loads induced on the aircraft become large. This feedback is missing when using brain control. TUM scientists are now focussing on the question of how the requirements of changing flight dynamics can be incorporated in the new control method, which basically converts electrical potentials into control commands. Brain waves of the pilots are measured using electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes connected to a cap. An algorithm developed by scientists from the TUB allows a program to decipher electrical potentials and convert them into appropriate commands. The brain-computer interface only recognises the very clearly defined electrical brain impulses required for control. “This is pure signal processing,” Fricke emphasised.