Mind control: UK firm develops drone brain piloting tech

pilot mind control

Don’t chuck your trusty controller out just yet, but a UK tech company says it has developed a prototype system for piloting drones with the human brain.

British tech group Ultra Electronics has been working on the brain-piloting drone interface for several years now, but says it’s now brought the concept along to the prototype stage. Though navigating a UAV with simple command thoughts sounds both exciting and futuristic, demonstration footage of the technique may not send heart rates as high as the mind-elevated craft. In fact, it basically looks like someone staring really hard at a computer screen for a long time. Indeed, the only aspect of it all that keeps those involved from nodding off is the nearby drone abruptly whining to life, lifting into the air, taking a turn or two, then landing again.

Ultra Electronics presented the product earlier this month at the Three Counties Defence and Security Expo, one of England’s leading events showcasing strategic tech. As he’s done in pre-prototype presentations, the company’s new technology officer for land systems, Tony White, explained the way it works to attending interviewers, who also got footage of a demonstration flight.

What that involves is a sensor-equipped pilot looking at a computer screen with several shapes on it. Embedded into those are stimulators that provoke a reaction in the eye. Rather than the PC’s camera registering those ocular responses, they’re picked up by the sensor strapped to the user’s head, which is then transmitted as a command to the drone. Or as White explains it:

We create some icons – we call them tags ­– and they have a signal within them. When you stare at that, your eye responds to it in a particular way. The way in which that eye response occurs is a signal that we pick up on the visual cortex of the brain… So the sensor is looking for the signals we create that come through the eyeball, through the brain, and then on to the visual cortex. Once we get it there as a signal, we can grab that. We understand what that signal looks like, and we can turn that into a command for whatever we’re trying to control.

Which is pretty amazing in the entire using-tech-to-transmit-human-thought-into-action way, but isn’t quite the kind of automatic, look-no-hands wizardry a lot of people imagine when they hear the expression “mind control.” Instead, the pilot basically glowers at an icon corresponding to a desired command, and once that shape realizes it’s being eyeballed, shoots the sought order through the brain and translates that into dronese. Then, off it goes. 

Okay, it’s still pretty incredible.

Ultra Electronics has been showing the developing tech off for a few years, and has also applied it to controlling various kinds of electronic gadgets – both household products and sophisticated defense applications. It’s unknown whether, at this state of its evolution, the brain-controlling prototype has been picked up by military or police forces for actual use – on drones or anything else. It’s safe to assume, however, that as the company advances it further, it will prove itself truly mind-blowing.

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