A team of researchers in China recently claimed to have used a solar-powered brain control device to steer a pigeon in flight for about two hours, per a recent report by the Chinese media.
Huai Ruituo, a professor at the college of electrical and automation engineering at Shandong University of Science and Technology in eastern China, is leading a team of scientists studying the use of robotics in animals.
According to the paper published by the team in China’s peer-reviewed Journal of Biomedical Engineering, a solar panel about half the size of a smartphone screen was strapped to a pigeon’s back to power a control device on the bird’s head.
This solar panel was meant to charge a small lithium battery which then powered the brain control device on the pigeon’s head that generated nerve-stimulating signals while maintaining wireless communication with the home base.
According to Huai and her team, previous experiments of brain control on pigeons saw the birds following human commands for around 45 minutes, which is similar to the duration of a typical commercial drone. This was due to the limited size of battery the birds could carry.
However, with the new device, “the animal robot can be guided to charge in the sun autonomously if the remaining power is low,” Huai and her colleagues wrote in the paper.
“The results show that for animals that are active outdoors, such as domestic pigeons, the running time is greatly extended after the system is installed, and they can perform tasks in farther places without worrying about the problem of energy exhaustion,” they said.
Potential Military Applications
A Japanese research team demonstrated animal brain control in 1997 in an international robotics conference presentation. They used electrical stimuli to keep a cockroach moving in a straight line.
Ever since, several global researchers have joined the field, applying similar technology to many animals, including beetles, bees, geckos, rats, and sharks.
The behavior of the animals is usually manipulated through the generation of neural signals that trigger unpleasant sensations such as pain or fear, prompting an immediate action such as turning right or left.
For many years, Western countries have maintained a lead in this field, and, of late, China has been playing rapid catch-up with the West, with claims of breakthroughs such as the controlled movement of a swarm of animals, an automatic guidance system based on GPS, and image recognition to direct an animal to a location without human intervention.
An unnamed Beijing-based researcher in the field of robotics in animals told the SCMP that the brain control technology has potential uses in some military applications, and some of the leading research projects in the field had been funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The projects included the development of brain-controlled animals to carry intelligence-gathering instruments of weapons in dangerous situations like anti-terrorist operations or combat missions.
DARPA was reportedly soliciting ideas for using insects as bomb sniffers, possibly by installing a microchip into the organism while it is still in the pupa stage.
The agency is also known to have planned tests using Blue Sharks implanted with brain control devices to transform them into stealth spies that could follow vessels while remaining undetected.
The implants, controlled by a small radio transmitter, reportedly stimulated the right or left side of the Shark’s brain area dedicated to smell, prompting the fish to move in that direction.
Communications with the sharks were proposed through US Navy acoustic towers, as radio signals could not penetrate the sea. These acoustic towers can send sonar signals to sharks as far as 300 kilometers.
Challenge Of Energy Supply Prevents Brain Control Technology From Being Applied
A significant challenge preventing brain control technology from being applied in military operations or other real-world scenarios is the issue of limited energy supply.
A brain control device needs a constant and stable energy supply for its components, such as the signal generator, computer chips, and communication components, to function correctly.
The solar-powered system created by Huai’s team mostly comprised off-the-shelf components, and therefore it was not a very efficient energy source. Additionally, the low-cost computer chip used in the brain control device consumed an undesirable amount of power.
The scientists claimed to have developed a smart power management system to address these problems. The system closely monitored the brain control system and predicted its energy consumption, which according to the scientists, improved energy efficiency.
Based on the predictions by the smart power management system, the brain control device can alter the intensity of its stimulating signals and coordinate energy distribution to different components to maximize an operation’s duration in a dynamic environment.
Huai’s team said their system could increase the effective power supply time by approximately 40%, even on a cloudy day.
The team’s experiment involving five pigeons reportedly demonstrated that the birds could obey simple commands, such as turning to the right or left, with 80-90% accuracy. Sometimes, the birds would not respond because of fatigue or strong, unexpected distractions in the open environment.
Huai also said that the performance of the brain control device could be improved if it is coupled with artificial intelligence, as it would reduce the burden of gathering data and calculation. She said better solar panels would also improve the conversion rate of sunlight to electricity.