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How An ASU Professor Controls Drones Using His Mind

Aerial View of Two Drones Inside The Lab At ASU
(Photo by Katy Burge - KJZZ)
Two drones inside the ASU-Tempe Lab.

Drones are becoming a popular technology. You can now purchase one for less than $100 and fly it around on your own. Unfortunately, you can only control one drone at a time.

But, ASU Assistant Professor of Mechanical and AeroSpace Engineering Panos Artemiadis can control multiple at the same time, and does so using his mind.

“What we have is a hybrid interface. For up and down, left and right motions we use a joystick and at the same time through the brain activity you can control the formations,” Artemiadis said.

The controller looks at a monitor and pictures how he or she wants the drones to move. Then, using electrodes, Artemiadis can decode brain activity with algorithms to move the robots.

“So, the main idea is to build a control interface between a human and multiple robots. What we are doing is extracting brain activity from the brain. We record that using non-invasive electrodes and we decode that activity to a formation or essentially collective behaviors of a swarm of drones, and we send those decisions wirelessly to the air vehicles then they fly in a specific formation that the pilot wants,” Artemiadis said.

Put simply, all you have to do is power up the drone, and whoever is wearing the skullcap can steer a swarm of drones.

George Karavas, an ASU Ph.D. student at the Mechanical Engineering School of Matter, Transport and Energy, can control up to four drones at once.

“What I’m wearing right now, it’s a scalp EG cap, where essentially we have the electrodes that we use to record brain signals which we then translate into commands and we control the robots,” Karavas said.

Others have been able to fly one drone using brain power, but Artemiadis is the first to control swarms. He said he will soon be controlling 10 to 20 at once, and it could reach up to hundreds or thousands in the future.

But what happens if the controller gets tired or can’t focus on steering that many drones at once?

“The problem is that you don’t get the correct signals and then you cannot control the robots very well,” Karavas said. “Usually what we do is we just let them take a break, move a little bit around and that usually helps and sometimes even coughing helps, as well.”

Even though mind-controlling robots seems like fun, it has a strict purpose. They would help in military and search and rescue operations.

“You don’t want to have a single big expensive robot that will do the work for you,” Artemiadis said. “What you want to do is to replace that  robot with a team, let’s say a hundred or a thousand small robots that are inexpensive to build, easy to control and even if you lose half of them during your mission you can still achieve your goal with the remaining robots.”

Artemiadis said the research was funded by two grants: one $360,000 grant from the U.S. Air Force and another one for half a million dollars from DARPA, an arm of the Department of Defense. The research has been published in a journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Artemiadis said the next step is to have several people control multiple drones at once. That would allow search and rescue crews to control teams of robots.

“These teams can also be hybrids. For example you have drones flying over ground vehicles and in some cases you even want to land those drones on the vehicles in order for example to charge them or to pass on information that you don’t want to go wirelessly,” Artemiadis said.

With a team of drones, one might start to worry about a mind-controlled, dangerous robot fleet, right?

“Like an army? I don’t know probably not,” Karavas said. “It’s only search and rescue and that’s what we’re interested in right now, but yeah, we can do it.”

“The robots are very good in doing tasks that are dangerous, dull and dirty and we have to use those robots in order to do those tasks,” Artemiadis said. “I don’t think people should worry about robots taking over.”

Katy Burge was an intern at KJZZ in 2016.