Future spaceships may be controlled by thought alone

Astronauts of the future may be able to pilot a spacecraft using their thoughts.

Washington: Astronauts of the future may be able to pilot a spacecraft using their thoughts.
For the first time, a group of researchers led by Riccardo Poli, a computer science professor at the University of Essex, have used a brain-computer interface (BCI) to control a spacecraft simulator - although in a highly simplified environment, the Discovery News reported.

The scientists also discovered that their BCI was far more effective when two people were hooked up to it and had to collaborate on a task in space.

The team set up at NASA`s Jet Propulsion Laboratory began by putting a cap containing 66 electrodes on a human subject. This has the advantage of being a non-invasive way to pick up brain signals, but Poli pointed out that trying to read EEG signals from the scalp is like trying to listen to a concert hall by standing in the street outside the venue. Traffic and noise make it hard to hear.

To help amplify the brain signals, the team used a computer that generated special visual stimuli on a screen. This helped the human subject produce brain signals that could be analyzed a little more easily. Then the scientists made a simulation and presented their subject with a challenge: Steer a spaceship so that it passes within a certain distance from the sun.

The "spaceship" was actually a large circle on a screen and the "sun" was a large white sphere that got bigger as the spaceship was guided closer. A set of eight gray dots arranged in a circle was the cursor for moving the spaceship, with each dot representing a different direction. Then the dots lit up either green or red at random.

To steer the spaceship in a particular direction, the human subject had to focus his mind on one of the cursor dots and mentally identify the color of the dot every time it flashed.

According to Poli, concentrating on colors causes the brain to produce stronger brain signals for their system to detect.

When the subject concentrated on moving the spaceship along the right trajectory, several computers worked together to read the brain signals, analyze them, and display the simulated spaceship`s movement in real-time.

Further, when two people worked collaboratively on moving the spaceship, the trajectory improved considerably.

Although Brain-computer interfaces in space is still a theory, Poli said that his research is more of an attempt to move BCI from the lab to the real world and give space agencies a better understanding of BCI in a space context.

Their next plan is to continue collecting data for their system, said Poli

They are presenting their work at the International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces in Santa Monica, California, this month.