Robotics

Mind-Controlled Drone Swarms Could Soon Put More Eyes in the Sky

Arizona State University engineer Panagiotis Artemiadis is developing technology that allows a pilot to control multiple drones using just their thoughts.

Drone technology has advanced rapidly in recent years and could be about to take another dramatic leap.

Panagiotis Artemiadis, head of Arizona State University’s Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab, is developing a navigation system that allows a drone pilot to operate a swarm of drones with only their thoughts.

Drones are primarily controlled with joysticks or mobile phones, which means a pilot can only operate one drone at a time. With a human brain interface, however, a pilot could control multiple drones simultaneously, pulling them into formation as a group or dispersing them on discrete flight trajectories.

“We first train the human subjects to be able to imagine those behaviors,” Artemiadis told Seeker, “and then we train an algorithm to relate those behaviors to activations from different parts of the brain.”

Commands are transmitted to the drone via an electroencephalogram worn on a pilot’s head.

Artemiadis likens the concept of a drone swarm to natural phenomena.

“The swarming paradigm, deriving inspiration from the behavior of natural swarms such as bird flocks and fish schools, offers myriad advantages to a team of drones,” Artemiadis said. “We can extract information related to the desired collective behaviors, like flying to a specific formation, that is not possible with manual control interfaces.”

A team of drones offers a host of potential applications that individual drones are currently unable to perform. “The integration of very large teams of robots into comprehensive systems enables new tasks and missions ranging from search, exploration, rescue, surveillance, and pursuit, up to deploying infrastructure,” he said.

Brain-controlled drones could improve search and rescue missions, covering a larger area more efficiently than a single drone could. Drone swarms might also be helpful in fighting wildfires, tracking the spread of a conflagration, which might provide first responders and firefighters with greater amounts of footage and data than current technology.

In agriculture, the drones could help create topographic maps to analyze soil quality and help with irrigation planning. They could also be fitted with sensors that would alert farmers to any crop infections. Manual drones are already used on some farms in the US and Japan, and the ability to deploy multiple drones at the same time with a brain-controlled interface would allow for even greater coverage.

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Security threats at large gatherings like concerts, sporting events, and political rallies are a widespread, public concern. Drone swarms could improve surveillance at these events, transmitting real-time video footage from a wider area than is currently possible.

Artemiadis, whose drone research is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research, has tested a swarm of three drones, but he says the technology could work on a vastly larger scale.

“As long as there is a centralized controller that can communicate the commands to the drones,” he said, “the brain-swarm control algorithm is scalable to hundreds or thousands of them.” 

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