New technology that allows a drone to be piloted simply by thought has been demonstrated in Portugal. Does this herald a new era in commercial drone flights, or is it simply to dangerous at the moment?
Brain-controlled drones take to the air
The company behind the new technology, Tekever, said that is could be used in the short term to enable people with restricted movement to control aircraft.
The BRAINFLIGHT project is the result of the four organizations – TEKEVER (Project Coordinator – Portugal), Champalimaud Foundation (Portugal), Eagle Science (Netherlands) and Technische Universität München (Germany), and has developed ways for aircraft to be directly controlled by the human brain. The group has accomplished important results and is paving the way for mind controlled drones in future.
Longer term, the company said that piloting of jets such as cargo planes could be controlled in this way without the need for a crew on board.
However, aviation experts have told the BBC that the industry is unlikely to adopt such technology due to a perception of being potentially unsafe.
Drone company Tekever, which works with security firms, police forces and the military, has based the brain-controlled tech on Electroencephalography (EEG) techniques, so it could issue instructions to the software which controls the drone.
EEG detects electrical activity in certain parts of the brain, and after several months of training, the pilots are able to teach their brain how to move a small circle on a computer screen up or down, which then steers the drone to the left or right.
“We believe people will be able to pilot aircraft just like they perform everyday activities like walking or running”, said Ricardo Mendes, Tekever’s chief operating officer.
“We truly believe that Brainflight represents the beginning of a tremendous step change in the aviation field, empowering pilots and de-risking missions, and we’re looking forward to deliver these benefits to the market with highly innovative products.”
The technology may in future be used to control much larger aircraft, although Mr Mendes said that considerable challenges exist with both regulatory hurdles and public confidence. According to the BBC, those concerns are shared by John Strickland, an independent aviation consultant based in London.
“This to me is certainly at the moment a bridge too far”, he said.
“You could get someone radically-minded who might say it, but I’d be surprised if anyone would do it”. Mr Strickland said the airline industry was focusing on things like better materials and more economical engines.
But Tekever’s COO Mr Mendes said the technology would incorporate safety measures to counteract the effects of someone having, for example, a seizure while piloting.
“There are algorithms on board that prevent bad things from happening”, he told the BBC.
He added: “Technology is evolving, regulations are evolving. Unmanned jets are obviously going to happen. The question is not if, it’s when”.
Mendes said “this is an amazing high-risk and high-payoff project, with long-term impact that has already provided excellent results and will require further technology maturation. We truly believe that BRAINFLIGHT represents the beginning of a tremendous step change in the aviation field, empowering pilots and de-risking missions, and we’re looking forward to deliver these benefits to the market with highly innovative products.”