A team of researchers from the Technische Universität München (TUM), led by Professor Florian Holzapfel and aerospace engineer Tim Fricke, are working on an EU-funded project named “Brainflight” which aims to allow pilots of the future to be able to control aircraft by their thoughts.
“A long-term vision of the project is to make flying accessible to more people,” says Fricke in a news-release. “With brain control, flying, in itself, could become easier. This would reduce the work load of pilots and thereby increase safety. In addition, pilots would have more freedom of movement to manage other manual tasks in the cockpit.”
So how does it work? Pilots are fitted with a cap fitted with electroencephalography electrodes which measure electrical impulses along the scalp. These signals are then fed back to a computer which uses an algorithm, developed by scientists from the Berlin Institute of Technology, to translate these impulses into commands. “This is pure signal processing,” says Fricke.
Although this may sound a little science fiction, the team has actually demonstrated that it works, and is impressively precise. They carried out tests at the Institute for Flight System Dynamics at TUM involving seven subjects with different levels of flight experience, one of whom had no previous practical cockpit experience. Of course, they weren’t using real planes; the test involved flight simulation.
Using brain control alone, the test subjects were able to guide the simulated aircrafts with a level of precision that would have been enough to partially fulfill the requirements of an actual flying license test. “One of the subjects was able to follow eight out of ten target headings with a deviation of only ten degrees,” says Fricke. Furthermore, some of the subjects demonstrated that they could guide the plane towards landing successfully in poor visibility.
In its current form, the system is far from ready for application in real planes as they have a few tricky hurdles to overcome first. One issue is that in real aircrafts, pilots feel resistance in steering and when large loads are induced on the aircraft the pilot needs to respond by exerting physical force. This feedback system is non-existent in the new control method, so the team will need to find a way to get round this and develop another feedback mechanism.