Steer a Spaceship with Your Brain

Astronauts of the future might have a similar cockpit view of space as they did from the Atlantis Space Shuttle, but the difference is that they could potentially pilot a craft using their thoughts.

For astronauts in space, working in zero gravity and trying to accomplish tasks while wearing a bulky spacesuit is challenging. The lack of gravity slows down a person's motor skills. And it's not easy to operate equipment while wearing gloves and a helmet or other cumbersome gear. Wouldn't it be easier just to control everything with a thought?

A group of researchers led by Riccardo Poli, a computer science professor at the University of Essex, is working on that idea. For the first time, they used a brain-computer interface (BCI) to control a spacecraft simulator -- although, by their own admission, in a highly simplified environment.

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Although brain-computer interfaces in space remain theoretical, the scientists 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. That kind of enhanced decision-making ability, while good in space, could be applied to a number of high-stress situations on Earth.

The team set up at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and 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.

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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.

In order 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. Concentrating on colors causes the brain to produce stronger brain signals for their system to detect, Poli explained.

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