Brain-Powered Drone Swarms Could Seriously Be a Thing

I'm sorry, have we not learned anything from figuratively all comic books? 

Getty Images / Sean Gallup

Have you ever wanted to imitate your favorite MODOK scene from the pages of Marvel comics? Of course you have. The idea of mind control and telepathy has inspired some of the best fiction throughout history, and according to new reports, we might be just a little bit closer to replicating that exceptional ability.

Using data from past studies, researchers at Arizona State University have developed a system that lets a user control not just one drone, but a swarm of them, with their minds. “Our goal is to decode that activity to control variables for the robots,” said Panagiotis Artemiadis, an assistant professor in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. With an electroencephalogram (EEG) skull cap, the pilot’s thoughts are “read” by roughly 128 electrodes, and that propels the drones forward, backward, and any other direction, simultaneously.

There are many potential uses for the technology, according to Artemiadis. “If you want to swarm around an area and guard that area, you cannot do that,” he says. But this technology will allow the pilot to go above and beyond the limits of local security, and the process leading up to it has taught the team quite a few things — like the fact that the brain can adapt to controlling swarms of drones in the first place.

“Swarm” may be something of a strong word to use at the moment, as the technology only controls up to about four at a time. ASU researchers say that their technology is more direct and easier to use than previous incarnations of mind-controlled drone software. When the pilot wants to take their drones for a spin, all they have to do is plop down in front of a monitor, watch the drones, and then think about where they want the drones to go.

Artemiadis says that it’s because, while we may not be thinking about it, the brain is constantly on top of our movements. “We don’t have a swarm we control,” he says. “We have hands and limbs and all that stuff, but we don’t control swarms.” Not yet, at least.

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