05th November 2021
It sounded beforehand like a piece of science fiction – but Professional Security and the rest of the audience at the 3CDSE defence and security show at Great Malvern witnessed it yesterday: control of a drone, by someone’s thoughts, writes Mark Rowe.
It had been already demonstrated outside, at the Three Counties Showground, before Tony White of Ultra Electronics did it inside the 3CDSE conference room, using the conference chair, the former senior policeman now a consultant, Brett Lovegrove, as a person new to the product, who – after a little calibration – did pilot the drone.
Tony White explained some background. Ultra has been developing soldier-worn electronics. As a typical soldier might carry 55 kilos of kit, so the physical and cognitive demand on the soldier grows: add to that smart goggles, or fingerprint scanners, or biometric sensing devices, body-worn cameras, or autonomous vehicles or a drone, all making demands on the soldier.
The uses of a drone on the battlefield or on patrol are obvious: you get to see ‘the other side of the hill’; or on a street, around the corner. But having a button or joystick or other piece of kit to press to control the drone – or on augmented reality headsets, bringing up a menu in front of you – means that the operator has to take a hand off a weapon.
Hence the worth of applying neuroscience; a human-machine interface for the control of unmanned systems. “And it’s very much here today,” Tony said.
Brett Lovegrove wore a device on the back of the head, held in place by a hand around the forehead; to stimulate the visual cortex. Icons appear in front of the eyes; processed by the brain; those signals end up in the visual cortex. Those signals are used to control things – in this demo, the drone on a table on stage.
A theme of the 3CDSE conference was the applying of defence sector tech to other markets – and thought control of things has many obvious non-military applications; as seen in a Mercedes Benz concept car – and not only or necessarily to move a vehicle, but to turn on or off a light.
As Tony White told the audience, the brain-computer interface had been recently to a STEM event in Bournemouth for children; in other words, seven-year-olds were able to fly the drone. No pressure there, then, on Brett Lovegrove as he took the test to calibrate the device, which requires the user to focus. He had to concentrate on grey squares (as shown on a screen on stage) that came up on various parts of a blue screen. Tony White explained that if you’re rated E, you are not able to use it; D and above, you are. Brett Lovegrove took this challenge with characteristic good humour and was rated C; and duly went on to launch and land the drone, by thought. You do that, and rotate the drone, by staring at circles as shown on the stage screen. To rotate counter-clockwise, you stare at a counter-clockwise circle. “I’m quite proud,” Brett Lovegrove said at the end of the short demo.
Tony White said that commercialisation of this tech is possible within ten years; as part of a much wider move to the ‘smart city’, a topic at the 3CDSE conference. Another theme was the collaboration between industry and government, as spelt put by one of the Ministry of Defence speakers earlier; Vikesh Patel, Head of Special Projects, Integrated Battlespace Operating Centre.
As in previous years – 3CDSE last ran in 2019 – 3CDSE positions itself at the defence end of the security (physical and cyber) spectrum. Exhibitors included the MoD, Department for International Trade and DASA (Defence and Security Accelerator, part of the MoD); and companies included Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence (the info-security arm of the defence contractor) and Thales.
The event was also something of a launch for non-profit-making regional defence and security groups, or ‘clusters’ arising out of the Government’s Integrated Review of defence and national security, published in March. While a south west ‘cluster’ was a pilot one, based around the University of Exeter, the ‘3 Counties’ cluster can claim to be something of a national centre for defence (physical and cyber) industry. Qinetiq, for example, is not much more than a stone’s throw from the Malvern showground; and nearby is Cheltenham, the home of GCHQ.
More in the December print edition of Professional Security magazine.
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