DARPA’s New microchip lets one pilot control multiple aircraft in the brain

A person with a brain chip can now pilot a swarm of drones — or even advanced fighter jets, thanks to research funded by the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

For the first time ever, DARPA has announced that it has demonstrated the use of telepathic thought from a human brain embedded with a specific kind of computer chip that allows a person to command and control simultaneously three types of drone aircraft by mental thoughts while watching the drones on a screen, as demonstrated in a DARPA simulator.

The work builds on research from 2015, which allowed a paralyzed woman to steer a virtual F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with only a small, surgically-implantable microchip. On Thursday, agency officials announced that they had scaled up the technology to allow a user to steer multiple jets at once.

“As of today, signals from the brain can be used to command and control … not just one aircraft but three simultaneous types of aircraft,” said Justin Sanchez, who directs DARPA’s biological technology office, at the Agency’s 60th-anniversary event in Maryland.

More importantly, DARPA was able to improve the interaction between the pilot and the simulated jet to allow the operator, a paralyzed man named Nathan, to not just send but receive signals from the craft.

“The signals from those aircraft can be delivered directly back to the brain so that the brain of that user [or pilot] can also perceive the environment,” said Sanchez. “It’s taken a number of years to try and figure this out.”

Ever since the first military drone took to the sky, pilots have wondered if their days in the fight were numbered.  Programs like Loyal Wingman already aim to take pilots out of the seats of aging fighter jets like the F-16 or F/A-18 Hornet, putting them back in the fight as armed combat drones that would potentially accompany advanced fighters like the F-35 into contested airspace. The F-16 drones would fly support for the more expensive (and manned) aircraft that would simultaneously serve at the data transmission hub for the drone wingmen, and potentially, as the drone controller.


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New DARPA technology that has already proven capable of allowing a single pilot to control multiple aircraft using nothing but her brain could soon make swarms of drone wingmen a reality in combat zones around the world.

This sort of technology may sound like science fiction, but it’s actually based on science that’s been around for some time. There are already a number of products available on the market that allow you to control anything from video games to electric motors. DARPA’s setup takes that concept to an extreme, however, forgoing the traditional headset in favor of a direct physical connection with the brain via a computer chip.

Being able to control multiple aircraft and receive pertinent information from them via a computer chip implanted in the brain could offer pilots unprecedented awareness of their battlespace, or give drone operators located elsewhere the increased awareness they’d need to make quick decisions required in full-scale combat operations. F-35s of the future could fly into contested airspace alongside a swarm of drones ranging from small reconnaissance craft to full-sized fourth generation fighters, engaging targets with either drone or manned assets based on the circumstance and, if need be, sacrificing unmanned platforms to protect the manned aircraft at the helm of the entire endeavor.

With the U.S. Air Force facing an ongoing shortage of suitable combat pilots, technology like this could mean the number of pilots required in combat may dwindle to fairly few — but because of delays in transmission time in drone operations, it seems unlikely that we’ll see a day free of pilots any time in the near future.

Then again, there was a time when controlling drones with your mind sounded like a distant reality too.

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