Brain-controlled robots assist the disabled

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Researchers at the Defitech Foundation Chair in Brain-Machine Interface have developed a new interface that allows people suffering from paralysis or mobility impairments to control a robot using only their thoughts – a breakthrough intended to help them become more independent.

Writing in a special June edition of the Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) devoted to brain-machine interfaces, Professor José del R. Millán of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) and his CBMI colleagues explained that the idea is to let disabled men and women control a robot from home using only their thoughts.

They recruited a total of 19 subjects (nine disabled and 10 healthy people) from Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, and had each of them attempt to pilot a robot with their thoughts. Over the span of several weeks, each participant donned an electrode-studded hat that could analyze their brain signals and gave instructions ordering the robot to move.

Those instructions were delivered in real-time over the Internet from the subjects’ home country to the CBMI laboratories. The robot was outfitted with a video camera, screen, and wheel that filmed while moving and displayed the pilot’s face via Skype. This allowed the pilot to interact with people the robot came into contact with, making it a surrogate of sorts.

100 percent success rate in trials

The researchers said that the trials had a 100 percent success rate, and according to Millán, the nine disabled subjects were able to learn how to remotely control the robot after no more than 10 days of training. Furthermore, the tests revealed no different in piloting ability between either of the two groups, with both groups operating the machine using only their thoughts.

The CBMI team also pointed out that their interface is capable of more than just allowing robots to be controlled mentally. The machine is able to avoid obstacles on its own without having to be told to do so, and if the pilot takes a break and stops giving instructions to the robot, it will continue along the indicated path until it receives the order to halt.

This allows control to be shared between the person and the computer, Millán’s team explained, which gives the pilot an opportunity to rest while navigating. The research marks the end of the Tools for Brain-Computer Interaction (TOBI) project, a European initiative originally launched in 2008, the research team added.


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