Past research has found ways to steer a drone just through the power of the mind. Now, researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) have built on that with a system that allows a pilot to take control of a whole swarm of drones, both in the air and on the ground.

Like previous projects, the ASU system kits out a pilot with an electroencephalogram (EEG) skull cap, complete with 128 electrodes. That headwear records which areas of the brain are activated when the wearer has certain thoughts, allowing those thoughts to be analyzed.

"I can see that activity from outside," said Panagiotis Artemiadis, assistant professor in ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. "Our goal is to decode that activity to control variables for the robots."

Previous studies tackled the problem by asking subjects to perform specific mental tasks that are easily readable, and turning the corresponding brainwaves into commands. The Flying Buddy 2, developed in Zhejiang University in China, required pilots to think right to fly forward, while a small mental nudge to the left would rotate the craft and a hard left pull would trigger take off and landing. A project out of the University of Minnesota had subjects imagining themselves clenching each fist – the left would steer the drone left, right steers right, and both would move it up and down.

The ASU researchers claim their system is more direct. The user simply watches the drones on a monitor and pictures them performing the desired tasks, whether that's flying close together, spreading out, or docking with ground-based robots to charge batteries or swap information.

Those instructions are sent wirelessly to up to four robots at once, a marked improvement on the old physical controllers, which, unless you have four hands, only allow control of a single drone each. Collective motions, which could prove useful, are impossible.

"If you want to swarm around an area and guard that area, you cannot do that," says Artemiadis.

One thing that took the team by surprise was the fact that the human brain can adapt to the kind of thinking required for swarms and collective behaviors.

"What I didn't know — or hypothesized — is that the brain cares about things we are not doing ourselves," he says. "We don't have a swarm we control. We have hands and limbs and all that stuff, but we don't control swarms."

However, those mental gymnastics can be fairly taxing. Fatigue, stress and distractions can weaken the effectiveness of the controls. To combat this, the researchers suggest breathing exercises or imagine closing their hand into a fist.

Due to the complex beast that is the human brain, the system has to be recalibrated every time someone new dons the skull cap, and even when a pilot returns on a different day.

Artemiadis plans to continue refining the process, and even move onto a system where multiple people control multiple robots. The team demonstrates the project in the video below.

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