A team of North­eastern Uni­ver­sity engi­neering stu­dents has devel­oped a system that allows a pilot to fly a sim­u­lated air­plane using nothing more than his or her brain­waves — a pro­gram that has piqued mil­i­tary and private-​​sector interest.

As part of their senior-​​year cap­stone project, stu­dents Nathaniel Kaye, Hamilton Kibbe, Boris Lippeveld, Kyle Mueller, Mike Nedoroscik and Rafael Perez devel­oped an inter­face that lets a pilot con­trol a sim­u­lated air­plane by looking at spe­cific points on an array of LEDs mounted on plex­i­glass in front of a tele­vi­sion screen.

Typ­i­cally, a pilot has a joy­stick and a throttle and those allow him or her to do a myriad of things,” said Nedoroscik, the team leader. “We were able to iden­tify the absolute essen­tial con­trols and write them into the soft­ware. We’ve been able to achieve up to eight com­mands, which allowed us to fly the plane and do a couple of flight maneuvers.”

The group was super­vised by Waleed Meleis, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering, and worked closely with Assis­tant Pro­fessor Deniz Erdogmus, a brain-​​computer inter­face expert.  During the two semes­ters they spent working on the project, Erdogmus gave the group access to his equip­ment, which allows a user to con­trol com­puters or robots with sig­nals from dif­ferent parts of the body.

Engi­neering cap­stone projects pro­vide stu­dents with a rich experiential-​​learning oppor­tu­nity, enabling them to pursue their inno­v­a­tive ideas through use-​​inspired research at a level of com­plexity more typ­ical of grad­uate studies.

We really want it all to come together in one project,” Meleis said of the cap­stone process. “That’s more sim­ilar to what stu­dents will be doing when they leave North­eastern. They’ll be working on projects that don’t have answers already estab­lished and don’t limit them­selves to one field or discipline.”

Using an open-​​source flight sim­u­lator called Flight­Gear, the group was able to design a com­puter system that could dis­tin­guish between eight com­mands at a rate of two sec­onds per com­mand, achieving accu­rate results about 80 per­cent of the time.

The team pre­sented their com­puter pro­grams to pro­gram direc­tors at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and inspired an internal grant at Hon­ey­well Inc. to pursue sim­ilar research.

Mem­bers of the team said the skills they devel­oped on the project would be rel­e­vant in their careers out­side Northeastern.

I think it was very applic­able, having to work in a group on a project of this mag­ni­tude,” Nedoroscik said. “This is really the first time that we’ve tackled some­thing of this mag­ni­tude as stu­dents working on our own, but we had to behave like pro­fes­sionals and report progress like pro­fes­sionals. This wasn’t a home­work assign­ment — this was some­thing we had to start from scratch and finish all the way to the end.”