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ASU professor strives to develop military vehicles controlled by thought

In the near future, American military personnel may be able to control fleets of unmanned devices, such as drones, using only their thoughts, thanks to an ASU professor and researcher in the field of human-oriented robotics.

Panagiotis Artemiadis, who teaches robotics courses and is the director of ASU’s Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab, was recently awarded a $360,000 grant by the Air Force’s Young Investigator Research Program to develop a human-machine system that would allow a person to control and coordinate a swarm of unmanned vehicles through their brain activity alone.

Artemiadis said this invention would revolutionize the U.S.’s defense program dramatically, making it faster and more efficient.

“It will make control and communication easier, because now, if you have a hundred devices, you don't need a hundred operators,” he said. “And you will control it with brain signals, so you don’t need joysticks or controls or anything like that. You just think about a task, and the swarm will do it for you.”

Artemiadis’s project was one of 42 selected out of a pool of 230 proposals, and he will ask at least two students to help him with the project.

The team’s research will begin with measuring human perception of the way swarms interact, such as by observing a flock of birds fly together. Then, the team will pinpoint the areas of brain activity that take place while a person observes swarm activity, Artemiadis said.

“There are electrodes you put on the head and record in real time the levels of activity in different areas,” he said. “We’re going to record activations and signals from all these different areas and show a picture of a swarm flying and see how you perceive the high-level goals.”

Then, the researchers will look at the areas of the brain that manipulate control, take the person’s goals for the swarm, and use a computer to transmit the signals into controls to the devices.

“You're going to think about high-level goals, and based on the activation, I’ll be able to take that input and put it into into the computer and put it into the agent you want to control and the agents will do what you want them to do,” Artemiadis said.

The military already has completed missions in which small swarms of about three to five drones, controlled by multiple people, were used, he said. Because this technology is in place, his project for large swarms could be completed and ready for use in the military in the next five to eight years, Artemiadis said.

He is not new to the field of thought-operated robotics, but this new project presents new challenges, he said.

“I’m already using brain messaging interfaces ... for controlling robots,” Artemiadis said. “But everything I’ve done so far is with a single robot, for example a prosthetic hand or even a robot in a different room or a different town. Now the challenge is controlling a bunch of robots that are not as expensive as the ones I’m used to.”

The benefits of the potential success of his project would be monumental, as less expensive drones would be able to replace costly equipment without risking human lives. Artemiadis’s project would also allow for extremely effective coordination between the individuals in the swarm, as they would all be operated by one person.

But the benefits wouldn’t have to stop with aircraft, and could also be used to control military swarms for missions on land and underwater, he said. The project could even be extended to use drone aircraft at home, such as for Amazon’s proposal to use drones to deliver packages bought online, Artemiadis said.

Elena Whitton, a mechanical engineering junior, has been working on this project under Artemiadis since August, though now that their team has funding, the project will be able to make significant strides, she said.

“I’m in the naval ROTC unit so I’m going into the military and this project has huge implications for the military because right now, they're using drones, but one at a time,” Whitton said. “The application is in swarms. It’s going to change the structure and the capabilities of the military.”

She said her team’s project is specifically worthwhile because it would take more military personnel out of harm’s way.

“If you're replacing pilots and people that would otherwise be on the front lines, those are lives you're potentially saving and it’s a huge step for technology in that specific area of research,” she said.

Despite all the praise and excitement surrounding the team’s project, some are wary of what such powerful technology could do.

Jacob Pritchett, president of ASU’s chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, said the drone program has already committed many atrocities, and he fears what could happen with this dramatic technological expansion.

“I don’t think drones are bad or technology is bad, but I do think it’s bad to unilaterally kill people without due process and it’s been shown the president has a kill list of targets that he deems a threat,” he said. “We have a program where people can be killed without us knowing their names, and if they show suspicious patterns, or live in a hostile area, then any person could be considered a threat and be killed and I don't think that’s acceptable.”

Pritchett said he does not oppose the furthering of drone technology for its own sake, but the country needs to watch the new technology carefully to ensure the government uses it for the right reasons.

“I think it needs to be watched pretty carefully because that’s potentially a huge advance in the government’s destructive capability,” he said. “I don’t think we should prohibit the development of new technology because of its potential uses. I don’t think we should prohibit anything. I just think we need to really watch the government when they're interested in anything.”

Artemiadis echoed similar thoughts, and said all technology should be used for just causes and the fear of injustice should not prevent further growth.

“It’s how we use the technology that will make a difference,” he said. “What we’re proposing here would literally revolutionize device control and even nonmilitary applications. Our work and our job as engineers is to advance the science and to do our best to protect what we have invented to be used for good reasons.”

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @mahoneysthename

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