Neural implants let military pilots control three jets at once with their minds

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

The future of warfare is digital and telepathic, and both types of warfare are now starting to enter the mainstream.

 

Asides from the fact we are increasingly entering the world where brains meets brawn, literally, and where, future cyber warriors will telepathically roam the world’s networks with just the power of thought, the US military is now, again, making it easier than ever for soldiers to distance themselves from the consequences of war. When drone warfare emerged, for example, pilots could, for the first time, sit in an office in the US and drop bombs in the Middle East. And now one pilot can do it all, using just their mind – no hands required.

 

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Earlier this month, DARPA, the military’s research division, unveiled a project that it had been working on since 2015 – the technology that gives one person the ability to pilot multiple planes and swarms of drones, whether they’re in the air or on the ground, with just their minds.

“As of today, signals from the brain can be used to command and control … not just one aircraft but three simultaneous types of aircraft,” Justin Sanchez, director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, said, according to Defense One.

Sanchez may have unveiled this research effort at a “Trajectory of Neurotechnology” session at DARPA’s 60th anniversary event, but his team has been making steady progress for years. Back in 2016, a volunteer equipped with a Brain Machine Interface (BMI) was able to pilot an aircraft in a flight simulator while keeping two other planes in formation — all using just his thoughts, said a spokesperson from DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office.

 

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In 2017, Copeland was able to steer a plane through another simulation, this time receiving haptic feedback, and if the plane needed to be steered in a certain direction, Copeland’s neural implant would create a tingling sensation in his hands.

However, there’s a catch. The DARPA spokesperson said that because this BMI makes use of electrodes implanted in and on the brain’s sensory and motor cortices, experimentation has been limited to volunteers with varying degrees of paralysis. That is the people steering these simulated planes already had brain electrodes, or at least already had reason to undergo surgery.

To try and figure out how to make this technology more accessible and not require surgical placement of a metal probe into people’s brains, DARPA recently launched the NExt-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, something I’ve discussed before, and their plan is to make a device with similar capabilities, but that’s non-invasive.

 

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“The envisioned N3 system would be a tool that the user could wield for the duration of a task or mission, then put aside,” said Al Emondi, head of N3, according to the spokesperson. “I don’t like comparisons to a joystick or keyboard because they don’t reflect the full potential of N3 technology, but they’re useful for conveying the basic notion of an interface with computers.”

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