The first-of-its-kind noninvasive system has the potential to help people who are paralyzed or have neurodegenerative diseases.
"Our study shows that for the first time, humans are able to control the flight of flying robots using just their thoughts sensed from a noninvasive skull cap," said Bin He, lead author of the study and biomedical engineering professor in the university's College of Science and Engineering.
The technique, called electroencephalography (EEG), is a brain-computer interface that records electrical activity through a specialized cap fitted with 64 electrodes.
This study, published today in the Journal of Neural Engineering, builds on previous research at He's lab where subjects were able to control a virtual helicopter on a computer screen.
"We were the first to use both functional MRI and EEG imaging to map where in the brain neurons are activated when you imagine movements," He said. "So now we know where the signals will come from."
Subjects faced away from the quadcopter and were asked to imagine using their right hand, left hand and both hands together. This instructed the quadcopter to turn right, left, lift, and then fall. The quadcopter was driven with a pre-set forward motion and controlled only by subjects' thoughts.
After several training sessions, the subjects were required to fly the quadcopter through two large rings suspended from a gymnasium ceiling.
"It's completely noninvasive. Nobody has to have a chip implanted in their brain to pick up the neuronal activity," said Karl LaFleur, a senior biomedical engineering student during the study and one of the paper's authors.
"It works as good as invasive techniques used in the past," said He. "Our next step is to use the mapping and engineering technology we've developed to help disabled patients interact with the world."