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Fly a plane with only your brain? Sure!

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TU München brain controlled flight

A test subject controls a flight simulator using only his brain in a university study in Germany recently. (Photo courtesy Technische Universität München)

Try to wrap your head around this: A German university is working on a system that would allow a pilot to control an airplane with only his or her brain.

I have a love for aviation. A career in journalism does not exactly provide the disposable income I’d need to fully pursue that love, thus I’ve never taken formal flight lessons. However, I spent countless hours of my youth playing around with flight simulators and have been fortunate enough to do a little bit of flying with pilot friends of mine in small aircraft in recent years. I say all that to say this: I know a little bit about how airplanes stay in the air — how they turn, climb, and descend without plummeting to earth — and because of that knowledge, my mind is totally blown at this study.

According to a press release from Technische Universität München — loosely translated, Munich Technical University — the research is part of a European Union (EU)-funded project known as “Brainflight.” Part of Brainflight’s stated objective is to eventually decrease the complexity of cockpit environments, opening the world of piloting to people who previously may have been unable to pilot an aircraft while also allowing experienced pilots to free up some cognitive space for secondary tasks. The end goal is to consolidate and automate aircraft control to the point that it allows intuitive aircraft control and releases a pilot’s higher cognitive functions to other activities.

Obviously, they’ve never heard of distracted driving in Europe. I kid, I kid…

Anyway, the university said researchers in the project have logged their first breakthrough:

They succeeded in demonstrating that brain-controlled flight is indeed possible – with amazing precision. 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 fulfill the requirements of a flying license test. “One of the subjects was able to follow eight out of ten target headings with a deviation of only 10 degrees,” reports Fricke. Several of the subjects also managed the landing approach under poor visibility. One test pilot even landed within only few meters of the centerline.

The TU München scientists are now focusing in particular on the question of how the requirements for the control system and flight dynamics need to be altered to accommodate the new control method. Normally, pilots feel resistance in steering and must exert significant force when the loads induced on the aircraft become too large. This feedback is missing when using brain control. The researchers are thus looking for alternative methods of feedback to signal when the envelope is pushed too hard, for example.

The plane is controlled by utilizing the electricity of your brain, it turns out. The system uses electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes connected to a cap, according to the press release. An algorithm then allows the program to decipher electrical potentials and convert them into useful control commands.

Before you freak out about some kind of German version of “The Killing Room” taking place at 30,000 feet, consider the release’s closing lines:

Only the very clearly defined electrical brain impulses required for control are recognized by the brain-computer interface…Mind reading is not possible.

One can’t help but imagine where this technology could lead in autonomous cars of the future. Where Google’s recently unveiled autonomous cars have no controls inside, this system could provide the user a way to seamlessly change things up or take over manual control of the vehicle on-the-fly. So this brain-controlled flight technology resonates on two fronts for me — both airplanes and cars.

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