If you've ever seen the inside of a cockpit, the first thing you'll notice is the hundreds of buttons, switches and levers a pilot must use to navigate the aircraft.
But in the future, a pilot may be able to get airborne simply by thinking about it.
It takes years of training flights and simulator time to understand the systems and earn the ratings that qualify an airline pilot, for example, to safely manipulate the flight controls. But scientists at the Institute of Flight System Dynamics of the Technische Universität München have shown -- with surprising accuracy -- that flying simply via brain control is possible.
According to the researchers, the goal of the test was to increase safety for pilots and reduce the number of items they have to consider and contemplate while in the air.
"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," aerospace engineer Tim Fricke, who heads the project at TUM, said.
"The pilot is wearing a white cap with myriad attached cables. His gaze is concentrated on the runway ahead of him. All of a sudden the control stick starts to move, as if by magic. The airplane banks and then approaches straight on towards the runway.
The position of the plane is corrected time and again until the landing gear gently touches down. During the entire maneuver the pilot touches neither pedals nor controls."
The system works not by reading a pilots mind, but by measuring the brain waves of the pilots using electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes connected to a cap. Researchers from the Department of Biological Psychology and Neuroergonomics at the Berlin Institute of Technology developed an algorithm that allows the program to decipher electrical potentials and convert them into useful control commands.
The the brain-computer interface only recognizes the clearly-defined electrical brain impulses required for control. "This is pure signal processing," Fricke noted.
Seven subjects with varying levels of flight experience took part in the simulator tests. One person tested didn't have any cockpit experience at all, but each subject stayed on course by merely thinking commands. "One of the subjects was able to follow eight out of ten target headings with a deviation of only 10 degrees," Fricke said.
The best performers even managed to approach and land the simulator under poor visibility, and another landed within just a few feet of the center runway line.
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