Mind-Controlled Robotics

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted June 6, 2013

For the first time ever, the human mind is coming together with robotics in a way that was previously only found in science-fiction. Modern technology never ceases to amaze anymore, but some of the outlandish things happening in robotics right now are out of this world.

And it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘mind over matter.’

university of minnesota quadcopter
Source: University of Minnesota

There are exoskeletons, or body suits, in development that are taking comic book super heroes and Hollywood movie juggernauts like Iron Man straight out of fantasy and into reality. And some of these these suits function through the mind.

If we travel to Norway‘s Robotic Drilling Systems AS, the company has essentially created a drilling rig that thinks for itself. The hope is that a fully automated rig would find its target based on satellite coordinates, set up camp, operate, complete operation, and move onto the next site when it’s finished.

The idea comes from a scaled up version of what NASA’s Curiosity rover is already doing. The company and NASA have formed an info-sharing deal to help advance the process.

And taking a trip to the University of Minnesota, we will find a group of scientists led by Professor Bin He, who, for the very first time in science, have successfully controlled the flight of a robotic helicopter solely with human thoughts.

The Quadcopter

Now, I’ve heard of telepathy before – communication between two people through thought – but scientists have chalked that up to a novel idea found only in science fiction.

What can’t be disputed is FACT.

The team of scientists set up a simulation experiment in a school gymnasium with an obstacle course of hoops, and using only the human mind, they were able to ‘jump’ through those hoops with what they call the quadcopter – a four winged, robotic helicopter controlled only by the power of the mind.

The team developed a new type of BCI, or brain-computer interface, with hopes that it would one day aid in the development of future robots to give independence back to victims of paralysis and those who suffer from neurodegenerative disorders.

There are other types of BCI research being performed around the world, mostly aimed at restoring basic and fundamental movements in relation to cognitive functions.

But the technology can also be used to enhance functions in healthy individuals, like in this experiment, or even in the exoskeleton research that was mentioned earlier.

The team’s experiment was set up with five human subjects aged 21-28 (three females and two males), each selected based on pre-determined criteria. Four of the subjects had never before been exposed to BCI. They each went through a progression of training procedures to ensure that they could sense, process, and carry out the experiment.

When it came time to carry it out, a special electroencephalography (EEG) cap was placed on each subject’s head to measure electrical signals sent from the brain. From there, software between the subject and the robot (quadcopter) transmitted each individual thought and sent a command to the quadcopter. For example, when a subject thought of raising a clenched fist, the quadcopter is designed to perform a specific task or movement.

From that movement, the subject received feedback in order to make any necessary adjustments.

And at an average speed of 1.54 miles per hour (0.69 m/s), each subject or user successfully navigated the quadcopter through the obstacle course filled with hoops.

Sure, it’s not breaking any speed records, but the possibilities this one experiment has created are endless.

Think About It

People who are dependent on others – those born with abnormalities, war veterans with lost limbs, diseased individuals, the disabled – will be given a chance to function on their own. And yes, many industries besides health could benefit greatly from the use of this technology.

Imagine, for a second, using a robot to complete a task that is otherwise dangerous or hazardous to a human worker. This technology could minimize the risk. Mining, for one, can be a very dangerous occupational hazard, but it doesn’t have to be.

Think about the BP (NYSE: BP) oil rig disaster in 2010 that claimed 11 lives. There are heavy costs to human involvement in dangerous working conditions like oil and gas.

Some companies, like Apache Corp. (NYSE: APA) and National Oilwell Varco Inc. (NYSE: NOV), along with Norway’s Statoil ASA (NYSE: STO), are looking for a better alternative.

Robots not only prove to be safer, but they get the job done faster. Have you ever met a robot that needed a break?

And considering revelations like the development of the exoskeleton, companies like Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) already have a prototype. With a bit more work, Lockheed plans to market its suit to the industrial sector. It could greatly enhance the strength and durability of present day workers.

Like it or not, robotics are the future, and tomorrow could be the day when news breaks that could revolutionize any number of industries.


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