Robots Can Be Operated By Our Thoughts

Researchers at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) have developed biosensor technology that will allow a person to operate robots and machines entirely by thought control. In addition to military applications, the new technology has potential in industries such as sophisticated manufacturing, aerospace, and healthcare, such as enabling persons with disabilities to control wheelchairs or operate prosthetics. The advanced brain-computer interface was developed by Distinguished Professor Chin-Teng Lin and Professor Francesca Iacopi, from the UTS Faculty of Engineering and IT, in collaboration with the Australian Army and Defence Innovation Hub.

Electroencephalography (EEG) is currently used to monitor electrical signals from the brain by implanting or placing specialized electrodes on the surface of the head. The majority of non-invasive versions use “wet” sensors that adhere to the scalp using sticky conductive gels that can irritate the scalp and occasionally cause allergic responses. 

To create a functional  “dry” sensor, the team developed a 3D graphene-based sensor based on polycrystalline graphene that could accurately monitor brain activity while not sticking to the subjects. They found that a hexagonal pattern performed the best when attached to the curved, hairy surface of the occipital region – where the brain’s visual cortex is located. Eight of these sensors were combined into an elastic headband that kept them against the back of the head. When used with an augmented reality headset that displayed visual cues, the electrodes could recognize which line was being observed and then work with a computer to translate the signals into hands-free communication that controlled the mobility of a quadruped robot. 

“The hands-free, voice-free technology works outside laboratory settings, anytime, anywhere. It makes interfaces such as consoles, keyboards, touchscreens and hand-gesture recognition redundant,” said Iacopi. “By using cutting edge graphene material, combined with silicon, we were able to overcome issues of corrosion, durability and skin contact resistance, to develop the wearable dry sensors.” 

As of now, this work is considered to be a first step in the creation of robust, easily deployed, dry sensors that will aid in the advancement of brain-machine interfaces, as the new electrodes do not perform as well as the wet sensors currently in use.