Spy drone
Scientists are working on the technology to control drones using their brains. While they are starting out with small helicopter drones, the end game is to have soldiers control military drones like this MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system (UAS)Northrop Grumman

Scientists at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) are trying to make science fiction into reality by developing a technology that would enable soldiers to remotely-control unmanned flying vehicles (UAVs) with just their minds.

Researchers at the university have recently been given two different funding grants. One is from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) worth $300,000 (£182,278) to investigate the possibility of military personnel using brain signals to operate drones for surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance missions.

The other grant, worth $400,000, has come from the US Department of Defense and has enabled the university to purchase two state-of-the-art, high performance electroencephalogram (EEG) systems, which are designed to measure brain waves (yes, like the ones in Ghostbusters).

Six professors from different departments in UTSA are working on different projects to do with studying brain-machine interaction, including Daniel Pack, chairman of electrical and computer engineering department.

"It becomes more burdensome to ask them [the army] to carry more things," Pack told local newspaper My San Antonio.

"You have to have a computer or a mechanism that you use to control the UAVs. But if you can do this without having them actually carry additional equipment ... then you are helping our soldiers."

Pack envisions soldiers one day having EEG sensors within their helmets which will enable them to direct the drones and get them to complete complicated commands.

For example, a soldier could direct a drone to fly over a hill to scout for enemies using his brain waves to give the command, and then receive the data in his helmet from the drone's camera immediately.

Of course, this is all still a long way off, and at the moment, Pack's graduate students are comparing their ability to make a UAV turn left or right using a special cap mounted with electrodes on one student's head, while another student issues the same command using a smartphone app.

UTSA is not the first university to work with brain-controlled drones, but it is the first to be researching the use of EEG for a military purpose.

Last year, Professor Bin He at the University of Minnesota was the first person to demonstrate a small quadcopter drone flying through large balloon hoops hung up in a gym, completely controlled by a cap with 64 electrode sensors on a person's head and a computer.

In order to fly the drone remotely, the pilot imagined making a fist. If he imagined making a fist with his left hand, the drone swerved to the left, following signals sent wirelessly from the computer to the drone.

The computer would decode the brain signals sent by the cap and then transmit them into drone direction commands.

"We've demonstrated for the first time that this kind of thing can be done non-intrusively," He told US News.

"The brainwaves contain signatures for each person, but there are some common features from person to person. There's a high degree of similarity between imagining or thinking of movement as compared with actually moving that part of the body."

Unlike UTSA, He's work at the University of Minnesota is designed to help paralysed people one day be able to operate electronics, robotic arms or wheel chairs using only their minds.