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The Helicopter Controlled Entirely by the Human Brain

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By Harold Maass

Call it the quadcopter mind meld. A group of biomedical engineers at the University of Minnesota has developed a novel way to fly a robotic helicopter, using their own brains as the remote control. The team's research was published Tuesday in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

They're not the first to try such a trick. A Duke neuroscientist implanted electrodes into a monkey a few years ago to allow it to control a walking robot. But this research team managed its feat using an EEG cap laden with 64 electrodes, which can detect electric currents produced by neurons in the brain's motor cortex. That allows the wearer to control the aircraft by simply thinking about a series of hand gestures.

The subjects simply watched where the quadcopter was going on a computer screen, and clenched their fists to navigate it — left to go left, right to go right, both to rise. The commands were sent to the craft via WiFi, and the five subjects managed to pilot the helicopter to its target 66 percent of the time.

Predictably, tech-savvy reviewers found the idea of controlling a quadcopter by thought alone to be pretty cool. George Dvorsky at i09 said it was a truly remarkable accomplishment:

First, there's the order of complexity to consider. This quadcopter has to be navigated across three different dimensions... Incredibly, the copter can be seen zipping around the room as it flies through various sets of rings. It's wild to think that it’s being navigated by an external, human mind.

Second, the achievement offers yet another example of the potential for remote presence. Thought-controlled interfaces will not only allow people to move objects on a computer screen, or devices attached to themselves — but also external devices with capacities that significantly exceed our own. In this case, a flying toy. In future, we can expect to see remote presence technologies applied to even more powerful robotic devices, further blurring the boundary that separates our body from the environment. [i09]

Previous leaps forward with brain-computer interfaces have involved transmitting a command to a machine — say, a robotic arm — and triggering a pre-programmed task that would then be carried out to completion. Rachel Nuwer at Popular Mechanics said that explains why the researchers think their work could open new possibilities for those with physical limitations such as paralysis.

"This new system allows users to make asynchronous (real-time) decisions and change course in midstream rather than having to wait until the prior task is completed," Nuwer says. "In the real world, this would allow a person to start walking forward to the bathroom, for example, but then change his mind and head left into the kitchen."

The aim, said Leo Mirani at Quartz, is to help "the paralyzed to restore their 'autonomy of world exploration.' For healthy users, the possibilities are boundless."

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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science
Belly Flop Physics 101: The Science Behind the Sting
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Belly flops are the least-dignified—yet most painful—way of making a serious splash at the pool. Rarely do they result in serious physical injury, but if you’re wondering why an elegant swan dive feels better for your body than falling stomach-first into the water, you can learn the laws of physics that turn your soft torso a tender pink by watching the SciShow’s video below.

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