Pilots of the future may be able to control their aircraft by merely thinking commands, scientists say.
Researchers at the Technische Universitat Munchen (TUM) in Germany have demonstrated the feasibility of flying via brain control - with astonishing accuracy.
Scientists led by Professor Florian Holzapfel at the Institute for Flight System Dynamics of the TUM are researching ways in which brain controlled flight might work in the EU-funded project "Brainflight."
"A long-term vision of the project is to make flying accessible to more people," said aerospace engineer Tim Fricke, who heads the project at TUM.
"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," he said.
The scientists have succeeded in demonstrating that brain-controlled flight is indeed possible - with amazing precision. Seven subjects took part in the flight simulator tests.
They had varying levels of flight experience, including one person without any practical cockpit experience whatsoever.
The accuracy with which the test subjects stayed on course by merely thinking commands would have sufficed, in part, to fulfil the requirements of a flying license test.
"One of the subjects was able to follow eight out of ten target headings with a deviation of only 10 degrees," said Fricke.
Several of the subjects also managed the landing approach under poor visibility. One test pilot even landed within only few metres of the centerline.
The scientists are now focusing in particular on the question of how the requirements for the control system and flight dynamics need to be altered to accommodate the new control method.
Normally, pilots feel resistance in steering and must exert significant force when the loads induced on the aircraft become too large.
This feedback is missing when using brain control. The researchers are thus looking for alternative methods of feedback to signal when the envelope is pushed too hard, for example.
In order for humans and machines to communicate, brain waves of the pilots are measured using electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes connected to a cap.
An algorithm developed by scientists from the Department of Biological Psychology and Neuroergonomics at the Berlin Institute of Technology allows the programme to decipher electrical potentials and convert them into useful control commands.
Only the very clearly defined electrical brain impulses required for control are recognised by the brain-computer interface.