Fly By Mind

June 3rd, 2014 by John Petersen

In previous posts here I’ve suggested that one of the big problems with the future of flying is that it is too hard to learn how to fly an airplane.  Pilots today are manually controlling the same elevator-aileron-rudder combination like Lindbergh did when he was flying in the early 1920s, and mastering the control of three dimensions is not intuitive. Getting the mind and body to work in the right way to keep from crashing takes a lot of work and money and presents a significant barrier to entry to aspiring aviators.

FlyByMind1The solution to this problem is obvious.  Make all new airplanes fly-by-wire and drive the controls with a computer . . . which can be programmed to convert any new and easier pilot input scheme into appropriate control surface outputs.  The inputs could be almost anything – including, it is now clear, your mind.

In late May researchers from Technische Universität München in Germany described the emergence of a new paradigm. In part they said:

The pilot is wearing a white cap with myriad attached cables. His gaze is concentrated on the runway ahead of him. All of a sudden the control stick starts to move, as if by magic. The airplane banks and then approaches straight on towards the runway. The position of the plane is corrected time and again until the landing gear gently touches down. During the entire maneuver the pilot touches neither pedals nor controls.

FlyByMind2This is not a scene from a science fiction movie, but rather the rendition of a test at the Institute for Flight System Dynamics of the Technische Universität München (TUM). Scientists working for Professor Florian Holzapfel are researching ways in which brain controlled flight might work in the EU-funded project “Brainflight”.

I’ve tried to make it clear that we are on the verge of an unprecedented revolution in aviation, driven and supported by information technology.  We’re talking things much more than glass panels and things like that that, which although new, would look familiar.  This revolution is being described by the convergence of a number of breakthroughs, some of which (like mind control of the aircraft), seem very foreign how we think of flying and airplanes.

Many big breakthroughs in display and computer interface technologies get their start in the gaming and entertainment sectors.  Here demands for lifelike, high resolution presentations (think of the 3D film Avatar), compete with compellingly immersive virtual reality goggles and new, more intuitive input-output device.  Early computer thought control approaches showed up first in the gaming space. Now it is spreading to aviation.

FlyByMind3The gaming (and now Facebook) world has also produced another breakthrough product that is certain to change how we fly . . . and everything else.  The cover of the present issue of WIRED characterizes it thus:

This kid (21-year-old inventor Palmer Luckey), is about to change gaming, movies, TV, music, design, medicine, sex, sports, art, travel, social networking, education – and reality.  The Oculus Rift is here, and it will blow your mind.

Oculus is talking about a set of virtual reality goggles that: “. . . creates a stereoscopic 3D view with excellent depth, scale, and parallax. Unlike 3D on a television or in a movie, this is achieved by presenting unique and parallel images for each eye. This is the same way your eyes perceive images in the real world, creating a much more natural and comfortable experience.”

The WIRED article explains why Facebook paid $2 billion for this little start-up with two dozen employees a couple of months ago and why it represents a paradigm shift that will obviously change the whole idea of IFR flying.  Just think of putting on your Oculus Rift and making all of the weather disappear.  Drop it over your eyes and there’s a new augmented reality world that has every bit of information available from every database you select superimposed in front of your field of view.

Couple that with only needing to “think” about what you want to do and where you want to go and you’ve clearly got a new world out there.

John Petersen

John L. Petersen is a futurist, strategist, and pilot. He is a former aircraft carrier based naval aviator, aircraft builder, and author of three books. He founded The Arlington Institute, edits and publishes the free e-newsletter FUTUREdition, and is the chairman of the Lindbergh Foundation.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • Mark Stocket

    Have to love it when the words “obviously” and “clearly” reliably mark the most tenuous bits. These demo’s are wonderful, but demo’s always show things at their best. Safe flying requires reliable options when things are at their worst. I don’t think we’ve even begun to think about the problems and paradoxes of mental control of machines. As for the virtual reality, we can already make the weather disappear in 2D displays, and it’s probably a good idea. But adding a complex 3D interface doesn’t add anything in this domain. It’s also problematic from a human factors standpoint in all kinds of ways that have been explored in ATC and elsewhere. But the biggest elephant in the living room is the headlong rush toward ever increasing electronic complexity with little to show in terms of gains in provable reliability. I still can’t figure out why my ordinary desktop computer shuts down and restarts occasionally overnight for no reason. Sometimes it decides it can’t get the internet anymore unless it’s rebooted. The one Oculus Rift demo. I’ve seen took an hour to set up and worked for 7 minutes before troubleshooting was needed. And Toyota is paying out billions because it put software between your gas pedal and your engine, then denied for years that anything could go wrong, go wrong, go wrong…. (if you know that old aviation joke).

  • http://batman-news.com G Randolph

    I don’t know anyone who became a pilot because it was easy or who doesn’t love the challenges flying presents. And who doesn’t love the feeling of the controls in their hands? No thank you, I prefer to keep flying just like good ole Mr. Lindbergh, rather than become just another system component to be plugged in. It is appropriate that the picture of the “Mind Pilot” has him sitting in the right seat as the left seat is reserved for the computer.
    And I don’t understand the argument that somehow the “future” of flying is at threat because we continue to use our minds to control our hands and feet to make the aircraft do what we command. If this was such a barrier to flying, why wasn’t it a barrier in the past? Cost is the true barrier to flying and I do not see how flying some carbon fiber airframe with a super computer for a pilot would be any less expensive a proposition than that 30 year old work horse most of us learned to fly in.

    UAVs, Google Cars, now flying by mind control! I guess the next step will be to just stay home in bed with an Oculus and experience the world through some virtual simulation. Which is just as well because it doesn’t sound like there will be any good reason to get out of bed in this future?