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This scientist can control a swarm of drones with his thoughts

What’s the only thing that could make a regular drone sound boring? A swarm of thought-controlled drones, of course.

As unbelievable as it sounds, this is exactly what researchers at Arizona State University have developed — with technology that allows one person to control multiple robotic drones simply by thinking about different tasks. To do this, the operator wears a skull cap which records electrical brain activity through 128 electrodes, and outputs instructions to a computer, which then relays information to the drones via Bluetooth.

“For the past year, we have been working on building a control interface between a human and a swarm of robots by using the brain recordings of the human-commander,” Panagiotis Artemiadis, director of ASU’s Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab, tells Digital Trends. “After analyzing the brain recordings, we found areas of the brain that can be used to control the formation and other collective behaviors of a swarm of drones. We record the electrical activity of those areas using non-invasive methods, and we decode this activity to control variables for the robotic swarm. The human commander can control the motion and formation of the robotic swarm in real-time by only thinking about their desired motion.”

Artemiadis’ lab has previously worked on the neural control of prostheses, and has demonstrated that it is possible to carry out highly dexterous control of a robotic arm using electromyographic signals. However, controlling a swarm of drones is another matter altogether.

“The brain is wired to control artifacts that resemble human limbs,” Artemiadis says. “The complexity of a system that requires the brain to activate areas to control robotic artifacts that do not resemble natural limbs — in our cases a swarm of drones — is significant and so far unexplored. Until a few months ago, nobody knew that specific brain areas can be activated when the human observes collective behaviors of swarms. The fact that the brain can adapt to output control actions for a swarm of multiple robots is fascinating and quite useful for human-robots interaction.”

And it’s pretty freaking cool, to boot!

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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