Can You Fly a Drone Using Only Your Mind?

BY Zacc Dukowitz
17 November 2021

A U.K. company called Ultra Electronics recently unveiled a “brain piloting interface” that allows you to fly a drone using only your mind.

The company has been working on the idea for several years, and now finally has a prototype ready to share with the world.

Although the concept sounds incredible, it’s honestly not that exciting to watch. Which makes sense, because if the pilot is actually flying using only their thoughts then there really wouldn’t be much to see—except for the drone flying, of course.

Watch the first 15 seconds of this video to see what we mean.

Mind-controlled drone prototype takes flight

How Exactly Does It Work?

Saying that the Ultra Electronics interface works by using a pilot’s thoughts is true, but not in the sense that you might imagine—that is, a pilot can’t think “Fly to 100 feet” or “Turn right” to make the drone do what it wants.

That kind of control mechanism would basically be magic, because it would imply that we have managed to translate complicated thoughts into interpretable, consistent signals that can then be translated into commands.

But even though this kind of control isn’t possible, the way the device flies the drone is pretty remarkable.

Here’s how it works:

  • The pilot puts on the device with its proprietary sensor positioned at the back of their head.
  • The pilot looks at a computer screen, where special icons—called tags—indicate different basic movements for the drone.
  • When the human eye looks at one of these tags it creates a unique response in the eye.
  • This response creates a signal in the visual cortex, which is located at the back of the head.
  • The sensor picks up that signal, interprets it, and sends a command to the drone to move accordingly—right, left, up, down, etc.

The Ultra Electronics interface is an example of a Brain Computer Interface (BCI)—emerging technology that can understand the brain and translate what it’s thinking into actions and commands.

mind-control-drone-tags
The tags that allow the pilot to fly the drone

Although we may not be able to translate complicated thoughts into signals that can be turned into commands, it is really impressive that researchers can use a signal in the brain to do anything at all.

Of course, part of the reason this system works is because it is simple and mechanical. For the approach to work, the human eye has to respond the same way every time it sees a tag, sending the same signal to the sensor to trigger the same command, every single time.

Why Would You Want to Fly a Drone Using Your Mind?

Based on what we know about the technology it seems like this approach to flying a drone could never be used for sophisticated types of flight, like those needed for most commercial drone operations.

But that doesn’t matter to Ultra Electronics, because their target use case is defense.

In the video shown above, Tony White of Ultra Electronics shares that the device could potentially be used by a soldier, allowing them to have remote control over various types of devices without having to take their hands off their weapon.

But he also points out that this technology could be used in lots of other ways, to control lots of other types of devices.

Power plant operators could make quick changes remotely using this interface, and anyone who needs remote visual data—for inspections or security, for instance—could quickly put a drone in the air or underwater while keeping their hands free to do other things.

mind-control-drone-sensor
A closeup of the sensor that picks up brain signal to send the drone commands

And controlling devices this way, without the need of using your hands, doesn’t just mean your hands are free. It also means that your mind is more free.

According to Ellen Kay, a neuroscience specialist who worked with Ultra Electronics to develop the technology, this “mind control” approach to remote control reduces the cognitive burden of those remote operations, freeing up the brain for other work.

Right now the Ultra Electronics interface is still just a proof of concept, but the technology seems promising. It will be interesting to see whether mind control drones actually hit the shelves some time in the next decade.

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