Five test "pilots" recruited by Bin He's bioengineering lab sat at a desk in a gymnasium wearing a skullcap with 64 electrodes, and took turns individually flying the machine up, down, sideways, and through vibrant orange hoops strung from the ceiling.
The pilots didn't watch the drone. Instead, as if in a video game, they watched a screen to see what the copter saw via a camera installed on the front of the machine. They controlled the direction of flight by thinking about moving their limbs in the direction they wanted the drone to fly. Thinking about clenching the right or left fist turned the copter in that direction. Thinking about clenching both fists made the drone fly up, and thinking about neither made it drop.
As a run-up to a trial using a real copter, members of the same research crew demonstrated how subjects wearing a similar brainwave tracker could control a helicopter in a virtual game. But controlling a virtual copter required up to 12 hours of training in a virtual environment. "Some people are much better than others," He said.
Previously, the educational group Puzzlebox has flown orb-shaped copters using an off-the-shelf EEG headset made by the company NeuroSky. NeuroSky also makes those Necomimi cat ears that flop or prick up in tune with your mood swings. (Though the university group has been working on brainwave tracking for some time now, He said he was not familiar with the Puzzlebox technology until recently.) Last year a group from Zhejiang University in China, showed how they used the Emotiv headset to control a quadracopter and even made it compete with a remote-controlled machine.
The long-term goal is to refine the technology so an EEG headset will help guide the movement of prosthetic limbs.
In the past, EEG headsets have been used to move everything from wheelchairs to disembodied cockroach legs. But control is only half the story: after all, the brain's relationship with a limb is a two- way street. Other bioengineering groups are investigating how prosthetic appendages, moved by the brain or nerves, can be responsive, and send back a sense of touch.
Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.