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Thought-Controlled Drones

A U.S. government agency continues to move forward with researching and developing braincomputer interfaces that could allow individuals to control drones at the speed of thought.

The program, run by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is called the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program. DARPA launched the program in 2018 with the aim of developing a braincomputer interface (BCI) that doesn’t have to be surgically implanted.

“Such interfaces would be enabling technology for diverse national security applications such as control of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and active cyber defense systems, or teaming with computer systems to successfully multitask during complex military missions,” Al Emondi, a program manager with DARPA’s Biological Technologies office, said in a statement.

In May 2019, DARPA awarded funding for the program to six teams of researchers across the United States. The N3 teams are pursuing a range of approaches that use optics and acoustics and to record neural activity and send signals back to the brain at high speed, according to DARPA.

Each team is working on a different aspect of the program. For example, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University are testing whether ultrasound signals could be used with a non-invasive BCI, Johns Hopkins University researchers are exploring near-infrared light.

“DARPA is preparing for a future in which a combination of unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and cyber operations may cause conflicts to play out on timelines that are too short for humans to effectively manage with current technology alone,” said Emondi. “By creating a more accessible brainmachine interface that doesn’t require surgery to use, DARPA could deliver tools that allow mission commanders to remain meaningfully involved in dynamic operations that unfold at rapid speed.”

DARPA says it is is working with independent legal and ethical experts who have agreed to provide insights on N3 progress and consider potential future military and civilian applications, as well as the implications of the technology. Additionally, federal regulators are working with DARPA to develop a better understanding of human-use clearance issues.