The U.S. military creates tech to control drones with thoughts

The legendary DARPA tests technology that lets soldiers control drones with their minds.

  • Military researchers have been testing implants that allow the operator to control drones with thoughts.
  • The tech translates thinking into code.
  • More development is necessary.

Technological progress has often been driven by military needs. Whether this is progress we want may be debatable, but the U.S. military's research arm, DARPA, tested technology that would allow an operator to control up to three drones just with thoughts. The goal is to create a direct interface between humans and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

DARPA, which stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has been a key engine of innovation since its founding in 1958. It's had a hand in inventing the Internet, GPS, navigation tools like Google Maps, technology that led to SIRI, the world's fastest airplanes, stealth fighters, and more. Not to mention that the list of DARPA's projects that we know of likely pales in comparison to what we don't know.

Between June 2016 and January 2017, DARPA conducted mind-control trials in Pittsburgh. These involved a paralyzed volunteer named Nathan Copeland who was outfitted with "bidirectional neural interface," according to the agency. Using the technology, Copeland was able to control the steering of a lead UAV as simulated by a computer, while keeping up the formation of two other simulated aircraft, explained Tim Kilbride, a DARPA spokesman, to the Daily Beast.

The specifics had Copeland channeling his thoughts via a medical implant in his skull while an EEG (electroencephalogram) allowed him to interface with a computer simulation which was navigating a hypothetical drone through an obstacle course. Basically, the programming turned Copeland's thoughts like "turn left" into code that the drone could interpret. Two robot wingmen supported the lead UAV, as reports David Axe.

"Nathan's task was to exercise vertical and lateral control to fly the lead aircraft through a series of hoops positioned in the center of the screen, while also maintaining/correcting the lateral course of the two support aircraft through their own hoops positioned in shifting locations at the top of the screen," Kilbride elaborated.

The drone operations that were controllable by thinking consisted of scanning the environment, detecting obstacles, and warning the operator.

Here's how you operate a drone currently:

Interestingly, the brain of the operator translated the signal from the drone as a strong feeling or "a haptic response." According to Defense One, Justin Sanchez, the director of DARPA's Biological Technologies Office, said at an event in September that "the signals from those aircraft can be delivered directly back to the brain so that the brain of that user can also perceive the environment."

While these tests aren't yet quite the same as having an army division of drone-guiding telepaths, they are promising. Another goal for such tech would be to be able to send images from the drone to the operator's brain. This potentially very invasive man-machine interface is still quite far into the future, as Daniel Palanker, a prostheses expert from Stanford University, related to The Daily Beast. "High-resolution electro-neural interface with read and write capabilities in 3-D is a long ways away," he said. However long it will take, the future of controlling devices with your mind appears to be inevitably coming.

Other countries are conducting this kind of research as well. Here's a video from 2016 about the attempts by Russian military scientists to control drones with their minds:

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