As a kid, I had a short and ill-advised stint in the Air Cadets that left me with a bad haircut and the knowledge that I’ll never be a pilot, because flying a plane is really hard. Mind-controlled flight could change that, and in fact make it easier to pilot an airplane by using only your brain.
Researchers at the Technische Univerität München (TUM) recently demonstrated how pilots can control a plane with just their thoughts. They hooked seven subjects up to EEG headsets—a device that measures electrical currents in the brain and maps them to a control output—and ran them through a flight simulation.
The headsets allowed the subjects to control the simulation by merely thinking flight commands, and with a high degree of accuracy—including one person who had no flight experience at all.
Electroencephalography often gets confused with mind control. EEG can’t read your mind, but it can process the electrical signals your brain gives off—your brainwaves—when you think certain commands, say, banking left. A brain-machine interface (BMI) then processes that signal and assigns it a value that corresponds to an output like an airplane flight control.
“Brain control could one day enable people to fly aircraft who are not physically fit to do so with today’s control systems,” said Fricke, the lead researcher at TUM. “Brain control might also be easier than manual control as there is no intermediary body movement needed.”
“However, all of this will still have to be assessed,” he added. Obviously, mind control technology is still in its early stages, especially with something as high stakes as flying an airplane. Researchers say they’re looking at different ways to make it more accurate and usable, and we’re likely still decades away from seeing commercial or military pilots controlling aircraft with their thoughts.
“Right now, only left and right movements of the airplane can be controlled and pilots need to focus a lot,” Fricke explained. “Once these technological challenges are overcome, it will still have to be assessed whether brain controlled flight is as safe as manual flight.”
Like, how exactly would we prevent a major disaster from happening because a pilot let their thoughts wander for a moment?
Some safeguards are still required, said Fricke. For instance, the simulator used in the experiment was programmed to prevent the plane from reaching high altitudes. It also must provide intuitive handling, so pilots feel comfortable controlling the aircraft.
“Before placing this technology 30,000 feet in the air, however, many other aspects have to be considered,” he said.
Until then, the research will be used to help perfect other mind-control devices. “In this case, applications are thinkable wherever humans control machines or devices—be it wheelchairs, video games, drones or cars,” said Frick.
Terrifying as the spectre of brain-controlled transportation may be, one of the promises of EEG and BMI technology is that it can allow people to participate in activities they were previously barred from by either disability or inability. In this case, like piloting a plane.