Modern warfare is increasingly fought from a distance, and despite the many positive impacts that drones could have on our futures, they are becoming part and parcel of battlefields with large-scale weaponised remotely controlled systems such as the MQ-9 Reaper drone deployed by the military.
Now, it seems the US military want to have access to technology that would allow soldiers to control systems not through a typical computer interface but instead via direct communication with their brains.
A grant published last Friday by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is seeking interested parties to develop and demonstrate a system that could have American soldiers making use of with neurotechnology to control drones with their minds.
The technology to do this is already under development, with a six Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) contracts awarded last year to Brown University, Columbia University, Fondation Voir et Entendre (The Seeing and Hearing Foundation), John B. Pierce Laboratory, Paradromics, Inc., and the University of California, Berkeley.
That project involves the development of an implantable neurotech system to bridge the gap between the brain and the digital world – converting the electrochemical signals in neurons in the brain into the binary code that drives computer software.
However, the neural interfaces required to make this technology possible currently require invasive surgery such as metal or silicon-based electrodes that are in direct contact with brain tissue. Presumably, there is inherent risk involved in such procedures, with the grant document stating that “current high-resolution neural interfaces are not a feasible solution for the able-bodied warfighter, nor are they ideal for therapy and restoration of function.”
The grant, titled Next-Generation Non-Surgical Neurotechnology (N3), seeks instead to develop non-invasive technologies that would allow soldiers to wear external or non-surgical neural interfaces to both record and stimulate the brain signals and transmit those to and from a digital interface.
While the potential applications of this technology is certainly bound to be wide-ranging, it is clear without a doubt that DARPA already has a pretty good idea of how they’d like to see the technology applied.
Participating teams will be funded by DARPA to undertake a four-year, three-phase program that will see the final phase demonstrate the technology in vivo – that is, on a human subject. And their “suggested” application? The grant document speaks for itself: “At the end of the program, teams will perform a DoD-relevant demonstration of their choosing in a human subject. For example, the final demonstration could include a human subject controlling multiple drones in a virtual reality setup, while receiving sensory feedback to portray the status of each drone.”
Freaky? Actually, not so much. Researchers at Australian company Emotiv released findings earlier this year showing that they could control a Parrot Rolling Spider drone using EEG. And only last week, Editor-in-Chief of The National Mina Al-Oraibi gave the whole drone mind-control thing a go with the Emotiv set up. Her account of the experience, though, describes considerable mental effort.
In fact…the development of mind-controlled drones are already being supported by DARPA, as was reported late last year by The Drive. Panagiotis Artemiadis, engineering professor at Arizona State University has been working on a research program titled “Brain-Swarm Interaction and Control Interfaces“, which is funded by both DARPA and U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR).
Talking to Electronics Products magazine, he said, “The goal for the next couple of years is to actually have…a team of…ground vehicles, mobile robots and aerial vehicles.”