Left to right: Mark Reid, John Simmonds, Stephen Doyle and Alex Crowder

Mind control

February 11, 2019 | Science

While Stephen Doyle sat at the computer, Alex Crowder, John Simmonds and Mark Reid sat waiting in the senior lounge of MacEwan University’s computer science department. They had lost count at this point, but it felt like their 650th attempt to get their drone off the ground. They had spent days, nights and weekends tinkering on their capstone project, burning the midnight oil, but getting no results. They were beginning to accept that there was no way this was ever going to work.

It was almost ridiculous to think four fourth-year computer science majors could control a drone with their minds.

Almost. Because in the next few moments as Stephen, wearing an EEG cap, concentrated on thinking about “up,” the drone started to tilt and lift. It stuttered off the ground. It went up.

“Holy shit! It’s flying! It’s flying!”

“It was the best feeling in the world just to see it work,” says John. “Because we knew that regardless of what happened, we had done the work and would have gotten the grade at the end. But for ourselves, we wanted to see our project work. We wanted to see it go somewhere.”

By the end of the project’s lifespan, the students had to tether the drone so it wouldn’t get too high and crash into the ceiling, but the operator needed to have a steady mind and clearly think about what “up” and “down” meant to them. For Stephen, that meant thinking of the action of doing a push up; Mark, however, simply couldn’t get his brain waves to connect with the drone. But for the three who could get it to fly, the main challenge remained successfully keeping the drone in the air.

“An interesting outcome for this project was that every time the students got the drone to fly through thought, their excitement would in turn cause their mind to lose focus and the drone to crash,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Davis, assistant professor in computer science. “It seems that emotion rather than thought may be the better way to fly the drone.”

It was the best feeling in the world just to see it work.
—John Simmonds

John had come up with the idea over the summer and recruited Alex, Mark and Stephen. They quickly realized as planning began in September that this project required all hands on deck to incorporate knowledge from computer science, engineering and design — with a sprinkle of neuroscience. The students are glad they were so ambitious with their project, and while they never expected to do so much engineering and design work, it was a worthwhile experience.

“Computer Science in itself as a major is unique because you need to be a broad learner, period,” says John. “As much as a computer science degree is about coding and learning computers, it’s also teaching you to learn well. How quickly can you learn to do this one thing that you've never done before?”

In December, they presented their capstone project, “Analysis of Imagined Movement Using EEG.” While they have no plans at the moment to continue their research, they say there is room for future students to pick up where they left off — and to take an interdisciplinary approach by working with students in other faculties and departments to perfect the system and the drone. But in the end, they’re happy they managed to get their project off the ground. Literally.

“It was nice to shoot for the stars and actually land on an adjacent star,” says John.

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