Mind-controlled robot offers ray of hope to the paralyzed: Subject can easily move robot wherever it wants, and it can also effectively interact with anyone it comes across.

A team of researchers from the Defitech Foundation Chair in Brain-Machine Interface (CNBI), headed by José del R. Millán, have been working on designing a break-through brain-machine system that will help those with paralysis or limited mobility communicate rather appropriately with others.

The aim of the research was to create a robot that could be controlled remotely by thought – even from different locations. Numerous test subjects from around the world showed remarkable results in terms of technical and human aspects. The conclusions of these tests were highlighted in Proceedings of the IEEE, devoted especially to brain-machine interfaces.

100% Successful Results Of Pilot Study

The system of controlling a robot with nothing but their thoughts was tested on nine disabled and 10 healthy individuals from Italy, Switzerland and Germany. For many weeks, the subjects wore an electrode-studded hat that could analyze signals from their brain. The subjects then instructed the robot, present in the laboratory of Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL, Switzerland), to move – the command was transmitted in real-time using Internet from the country they belonged to.

Using its video camera, screen and wheels, the robot was able to film its movement as it displayed the face of the subject instructed it, via Skype. The subject could easily move the robot wherever and however it wanted, and it could also effectively interact with anyone it came across.

“Each of the 9 subjects with disabilities managed to remotely control the robot with ease after less than 10 days of training,” reported Professor Millán.

Mind Of Its Own To Help

The brain-machine interface somewhat shares control between the subject and itself. The robot is capable of avoiding obstacles even if the instructor does not guide it. If the pilot takes a break and stops giving indicators to the robot, the machine can still continue working on the instructed path until ordered to stop. These features allow the disabled pilot to take some rest while the robot continues on navigating.

Works For Both – Healthy And Disabled Pilots

Interestingly, results of the second part of the study showed no differences in how the robot responded when piloted by a healthy or a disabled person. Individuals with residual mobility were asked to instruct the robot, making use of the limited movements they could still make, such as pressing buttons with the side of their face. They were able to pilot the robot similar to those who were only using their thoughts, which further corroborates the effectiveness of the brain-machine interface.

Funding For A Better Future

The promising results of this research finally brought an end to the European project called TOBI (Tools for Brain-Computer Interaction), started back in 2008. So, are robots the future helpers of people with disabilities? Will robots soon become a fact of daily life for people suffering from a disability? “Still too soon to say,” expressed Professor Millán. “For this to happen, insurance companies will have to help finance these technologies.”