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. NASA

 
BIOTECHNOLOGY

Steer a Spaceship with Your Brain

MAR 6, 2013 04:00 PM ET // BY ALYSSA DANIGELIS

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.

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.

Read more: Steer a Spaceship with Your Brain : Discovery News.

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