Never mind autonomous cars. German scientists are well on the way to developing a mind-controlled plane.
In his 1977 genre-defining techno-thriller, Firefox, Craig Thomas tells the story of a top-secret Russian fighter plane that can be operated via a pilot's thoughts and an Anglo-American plot to steal it.
Despite being dismissed as closer to science fiction than spy thriller, the book was an international bestseller and turned into a film by Clint Eastwood in 1982. However, fast-forward 32 years from the film premiere and science fiction is now well and truly science fact.
Using electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes connected to a cap and placed on the pilot's head to monitor brainwave activity and turn it into commands, scientists at Technische Universität München and the TU Berlin have proven that flying a plane with nothing more than concentration isn't just a possibility, but that it can be done with astonishing levels of precision.
The tests, which involved seven subjects, took place in a specially adapted flight simulator, and each of the people chosen had a different level of flight experience, including one subject who'd never been inside a cockpit, let alone flown a plane.
However, by doing nothing but thinking of commands, the subjects completed the manoeuvers with sufficient accuracy to have met the requirements of a flying license test. As aerospace engineer Tim Fricke, who heads the project at TUM, explains: "One of the subjects was able to follow eight out of ten target headings with a deviation of only 10 degrees."
The research is part of the EU-funded Brainflight project, one of the aims of which is to make flying accessible to more people.
"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," said Fricke.
Following this initial breakthrough the scientists are now looking at how a cockpit would need to be modified in order to facilitate mind control. For example, physical controls such as the steering offer feedback and resistance that tell the pilot about the loads being brought to bear on the aircraft.
How would this sort of handling information be relayed to someone who was flying hands free?
The scientists lan to officially present their results in September at the Deutscher Luft- und Raumfahrtkongress (German flight and aerospace congress).
In the meantime, it might be worth seeing if Firefox is available on Netflix or Amazon Prime. — ©AFP/Relaxnews 2014
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