The future of robotic warfare could be nigh.
An engineering professor at Arizona State University is developing technology that would allow an Air Force pilot to control an entire fleet of drones using his mind.
Panagiotis Artemiadis runs the university’s Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab, where researchers seek to understand and improve interactions between humans and robots. The lab was awarded grants totaling $860,000 from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and U.S. Air Force in 2014 to build out the mind-control technology.
“Ten or 20 years from now, instead of having big expensive aircraft or drones, you can have hundreds or thousands of inexpensive ones you deploy in an area,” Artemiadis said. “Even if you lose half of them, you can still achieve your goals.”
And those drones can be controlled, at least in part, with the human mind, he said. The pilot wears what looks like a high-tech swimmer’s cap, equipped with 128 electrodes that detect brainwaves. The electrodes identify where thoughts originate in the brain and determine the pilot’s intended commands, and then those commands are communicated to the robots via Bluetooth.
A pilot can instruct a cluster of flying drones or terrestrial vehicles to move in a certain direction, spread out over a larger area, or circle around a specific target. To date, one subject has been able to control as many as four drones inside of the lab, Artemiadis said. The project will soon move to a 5,000-square-foot facility where researchers hope to increase that number to 20 and eventually into the hundreds.
“It’s a matter of getting good signals with cheap and portable electrodes. Once you have this, you can definitely do this outdoors if you want,” Artemiadis said.
Before you picture X-Men-style warfare, Artemiadis said he does not expect mind control to completely replace pilots’ joysticks and computers — at least for the time being. Controlling robots completely with one’s mind requires a high degree of concentration that may be difficult to conjure on the battlefield.
But Artemiadis added there ultimately may be applications beyond defense, such as humanitarian aid distribution, package delivery, or search and rescue operations.
“We are adding more degrees of freedom and more capabilities,” he said.