This Woman Flew an F-35 Simulator with Her Mind

Scheuermann

Jan Scheuermann, a quadriplegic and pioneering patient for an experimental Pentagon robotics program, continues to break ground in freeing the mind from the body.

The 55-year-old mother of two in 2012 agreed to let surgeons implant electrodes on her brain to control a robotic arm. More recently, she flew an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter simulator using nothing but her thoughts, an official said.

Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, cited the breakthrough last week at the first annual Future of War conference. The event was organized by the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C.

Scheuermann, who became paralyzed years ago from a rare genetic disease, has tolerated the two pea-sized implants on her left motor cortex “very well,” Prabhakar said, allowing her to extend her participation in the DARPA project.

While the left motor cortex is understood to control the movement on the right side of the body, Scheuermann was able to manipulate both right- and left-handed versions of the robotic limb, Prabhakar said.

But the experiments aren’t limited to prosthetics. Indeed, so-called neural signaling is at the heart of the research.

So Scheuermann decided she wanted to try flying a simulator of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Prabhakar said, which is the Pentagon’s newest fighter jet and its most expensive weapons acquisition program.

F-35_simulator

“Instead of thinking about controlling a joystick, which is what our ace pilots do when they’re driving this thing, Jan’s thinking about controlling the airplane directly,” Prabhakar said. “For someone who’s never flown — she’s not a pilot in real life — she’s flying that simulator directly from her neural signaling.”

Prabhakar said the research is far from becoming reality. Even so, she acknowledged that it raises fundamental moral and ethical questions about the intersection of biology and robotics.

“In doing this work, we’ve also opened this door,” she said. “We can now see a future where we can free the brain from the limitations of the human body and I think we can all imagine amazing good things and amazing potential bad things that are on the other side of that door.”

Geoffrey Ling, director of the biological technologies at DARPA and one of the lead scientists behind the project, said he was just as excited when he saw Scheuermann first control the robotic arm as he was when he watched the live television broadcast of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

“I had the same tingles because I realized that we have now stepped over a great threshold into what’s possible and, very importantly, what patients can now expect in terms of restoration — this is a very important part — not rehabilitation, but restoration,” the retired Army colonel said during a 2012 episode of CBS news program, “60 Minutes.”

As for Scheuermann, who participates in the research through a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center study, she’s happy to play the role of pioneering patient.

“I’ve always believed there’s a purpose to my illness,” she told CBS. “I didn’t think I would ever find out what it was in my lifetime.”

She added, “And here came this study where they needed me. You know, they couldn’t just pick any Tom, Dick or Harry off the street. In a few years, the quadriplegics and the amputees that this is going to help — the Department of Defense is funding some of this for vets — to be of use to them, in service to them, what an honor.”

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Lance

    Only down side if you had a quick thought about your ejector seat…. You eject when you don’t want too. LOL

  • Godzilla

    They had something like this in Macross Plus anime.
    The YF-21 fighter had a BDS (brain direct interface system).

    The problem was that the interface worked both ways. Not only could it be used to act against something but your brain could be reprogrammed as well and the pilot was mentally unstable to begin with.

    In theory systems like these can reduce pilot response times but in practice getting a useful signal and quantity error prone input has always been a problem.

    • vasha5

      Sci-fi has done neural interface with the Battletech universe as well as Macross and other works. What is amazing is that it works. Thinking is a lot faster.

    • My first thought too. I love Macross Plus and there is no object real or fictional I want more than a Veritech fighter.

  • C-Low

    This is the future. I have long thought if we are ever to go to space in a real way it will be brain boxes in robot bodies. The Food Water Oxygen consumption would be drastically reduced while at the same time resiliency and life span would be increased by multiples.

    It would be super expensive but if you could extend your life to multiples of your standard life span would it be to much spend a life time working for the gov to pay for your suit?

    • blight_

      That assumes that the brain itself doesn’t break down and die, especially without the rest of the body for support. We may even discover that artificial brains still get dementia, and that means some people won’t live forever in robot bodies and some may live a little longer.

      • A..

        gotta have a system of nanites that automatically scrapes the plaque and cleans the statins…if you can do a deep space robot brain box mission, probably BOREDOM would be the real issue. But how can we predict how things will change with brain augmentation?

  • Jeff

    I don’t think it makes sense to use anything like this with front line fighters, yet. There has however been a push for more drone pilots, one proposal being allowing other service pilots who are not 100% to pilot drones. This technology would allow even more disabled pilots to serve as drone pilots

    • Barabbas-

      My understanding was the actual pilots (even those in perfect health) generally make below average drone pilots. The physical and mental skill sets are completely different.

  • Munbles

    The enjoyable 80’s movie Firefox with Clint Eastwood was prophetic about this subject. Although he had to think in Russian.
    Amazing times we live in.

  • Red

    What if you think about crashing, and crash?

    Or think “Fire!”, and shoot down when not authorized to fire?

    • Rob C.

      Just think in Russian…..Like Clint Eastwood Firefox movie.

  • guest

    Now that’s funny

  • Curtis Conway

    I was wondering where my tax dollars were going. Now I know.

    • crackedlenses

      This reminds me of the origin of the Jaegers in Pacific Rim; in the movie the technology got started as a DARPA project in the present day.

  • William_C1

    I hope somebody at DARPA was able to make a “you must think in Russian” joke.

  • James k

    So…Ahhhh Got Wood ?
    OOPS

  • John Scior

    Unfortunately, this may be the only way anyone will be able to fly this system. Only in their mind. Thanks for cutting the F-22 program short so we could buy this “affordable” system that has a gatling gun that wont work and now the b version needs modifications to carry SDB 2.
    Next time lets better develop platform BEFORE putting into production !!!

  • rtsy

    She really drank the cool-aid if she thinks the DoD is going to use this tech to actually help the everyday lives of vets.

  • James

    I don’t think this is a good idea. If I had this, there would be a lot of people getting bi-tch-slapped all over the place… maybe worse sometimes. LMAO.

    • James

      …and I would be standing there saying. “Sorry. I was just thinking about doing that. I didn’t mean for it to actually happen”. Good times.

  • paamf

    Remind me…when the hell was a VSTOL aircraft used or required in war or combat? The Marines should be told their air fleet will be limited to choppers and drones the Navy will provide the other mission suuport. If need be it would be more efficient and cost effective to build “jeep” carriers with catapults and CAS aircraft; stop this moronic VSTOL BS.

  • GI dude

    Whew! At first I thought the headline was that an F-35 ACTUALLY FLEW!

  • I am thrilled for your courage and willingness to be used for he improvement of humanity. Your an amazing woman. I too, felt the tingle of joy! This is amazing. I am veteran, aunt of a quadrapalygic and lover of mankind. God is so good