Arizona State researcher controls multiple drones with his mind

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TEMPE, Ariz. — From repairing a spacecraft to a remote search-and-rescue, one researcher at Arizona State University says in the near future, increasingly complex tasks will be done by swarms of robots. That’s why he’s developing a system to control multiple robots with the human mind.

“This is something nobody has done before,” said Panagiotis Artemiadis, director of ASU’s Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab.

To be sure, researchers have spent decades working out ways to use the brain’s electrical activity to control a single robot, Artemiadis said, but his approach allows one pilot to control potentially hundreds of robots. That includes drones in the sky and devices on the ground.

Inside his lab at ASU, Artemiadis and his team of grad students are controlling three or four quadcopters at a time behind the safety of a net. They keep the swarm small because space here is limited, Artemiadis said. But in a couple of weeks, they’ll test the mind-control system in a gym on campus with about 20 robots.

“I can easily control a hundred robots as long as I have those robots, and I have ways to coordinate those robots — and I have the space,” he said.

In his system, pilots use a joystick (in this case, a PlayStation controller) to move the drones as a group. They use their mind for more complicated swarm behavior.

“For example, their formation,” he said. “Or if you want to cover a specific area, you want to change their inter-distance to cover a bigger area.”

Artemiadis said when pilots picture different formations, it triggers certain areas of their brain. That activity is measured by electrodes on a skull cap, decoded, and sent via Bluetooth to the drones. Picture a circle and the drones will form a circle. Picture an expanding circle, and the drones will spread out.

The research is funded by an $860,000 grant from the Department of Defense.

“Obviously, there are military applications where you want to use multiple small robots instead of a single one, but there are also applications in everyday life. For an example, if you want to access a remote area to provide medical help,” he said.

The advantage of a swarm is that if some robots fail, the rest can still accomplish the mission, he said.

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