35 Years Ago, Researchers Used Brain Waves to Control a Robot

The achievement has paved the way for other EEG-controlled devices such as drones

4 min read
An illustration of a robot and a representation of a brain wave.

A student volunteer’s electroencephalogram brain signals were used to move a robot [bottom, right] along a closed-circuit track at Saints Cyril and Methodius University, in Skopje, North Macedonia (formally the Republic of Macedonia).

Saints Cyril and Mehtodius University/IEEE

Using the brain to directly control an object was long the stuff of science fiction, and in 1988 the vision became a reality.

IEEE Life Senior Member Stevo Bozinovski and Members Mihail Sestakov and Dr. Liljana Bozinovska used a student volunteer’s electroencephalogram (EEG) brain signals to move a robot along a closed-circuit track. Bozinovski was an electrical engineering and computer science professor at Saints Cyril and Methodius University, in Skopje, North Macedonia (formally the Republic of Macedonia). Sestakov was a graduate student at the school, pursuing a master’s degree in electrical engineering, computer science, and artificial intelligence. Bozinovska, a physician, taught in the university’s medical school. Their achievement has paved the way for EEG-controlled drones, wheelchairs, and exoskeletons.

IEEE commemorated their work with an IEEE Milestone during a ceremony at the university on 10 October.

“The accomplishment is not only meaningful locally,” Vladimir Atanasovski said at the dedication ceremony. “It exhibits benefits for the entire humanity.” Atanasovski is dean of the university’s electrical engineering and information technologies school.

“It was at this very school, 35 years ago, where a relationship between two previously distant areas [robotics and EEG signals] was formed,” he added. “This remarkable work showed that science fiction can become a reality.

“Controlling a robot using human brain signals for the first time advanced both electrical and computer engineering and science, led to worldwide research on brain-computer interfaces, and opened an explicit communication channel between robots and humans.”

Using engineering to demonstrate psychokinesis

Bozinovski, Sestakov, and Bozinovska built a system to send commands to a robot based on EEG signal processing. The method is noninvasive; all you have to do is place electrodes on a volunteer’s scalp.

The three researchers used an Elehobby (now called Elekit) Movit Line Tracer II robot they purchased at the Akihabara market in Tokyo. The robot had two plastic discs that sat on top of each other and held the electronic components between them. Its two wheels were controlled with a start/stop mechanical switch.

“Engineers are the driving force in every country, contributing to the welfare and progress of societies.”—Stevo Pendarovski

The robot, powered by batteries, drove on a track drawn on a flat surface, according to the Milestone proposal entry on the Engineering Technology and History Wiki.

But the researchers still didn’t know how they were going to translate the brain signals into commands. Bozinovska suggested using the EEG’s prominent range frequency of 8 to 13 hertz—known as the alpha rhythm. It’s a pattern of electrical activity in the part of the brain that processes visual information. The frequency increases when a person is relaxed and not processing visual information.

Bozinovska’s theory was that the alpha rhythm would command the Line Tracer. People attempting to control the robot would achieve relaxation by closing their eyes. To stop the robot from moving, they would open their eyes.

Bozinovski, Sestakov, and Bozinovska designed an experiment to test her theory.

Moving a robot using brain signals

Black and white photo of table with a race track on it with two people sitting behind itTwo floors were built to conduct the experiment. The first floor had a table on which sat a rectangular closed-circuit track with markings where the robot would be commanded to stop.Saints Cyril and Mehtodius University/IEEE

Bozinovski and Sestakov built a two-floor “robot arena,” as Bozinovski described it in the Milestone entry, in the school’s Laboratory of Intelligent Machines and Bioinformation Systems to conduct the experiment. On the first floor there was a table on which a closed-circuit track was drawn and optical sensors were placed. Next to the table were an IBM XT personal computer, analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters, and a differential biomedical amplifier, which collected the student volunteer’s brain signal.

The second floor housed power amplifiers. Wires from the amplifiers attached to the robot hung from the top floor, well out of the way of the robot’s movement. The student volunteer sat on the bottom floor next to the table.

Electrodes were placed at the volunteer’s midline parietal cortex—the part of the brain that completes visual scene processing. More were placed behind the right ear and on the forehead.

To move the robot, the student relaxed, with their eyes closed. The differential biomedical amplifier recorded the EEG signals and inputted them into the computer with the help of the A/D converter set at a 300 Hz sampling rate. Machine learning and recognition software created by Bozinovski and Sestakov translated the signals into a go command. The computer then sent a 5-volt logic pulse through the D/A converter—which the transistor amplifier magnified and sent to the robot. The volunteer was able to stop the Line Tracer by opening their eyes.

Bozinovski, Sestakov, and Bozinovska presented their findings at the 1988 IEEE International Engineering in Medicine and Biology Conference.

North Macedonia’s president on the importance of engineers

“Engineers are the driving force in every country, contributing to the welfare and progress of societies,” Stevo Pendarovski, president of North Macedonia, said at the dedication ceremony.

“Let this genuinely exceptional event of great importance for Macedonian engineering in particular, but also for Macedonian science and society as a whole, be an inspiration for all students, professors, and future engineers,” Pendarovski said, “to create and contribute to building a modern and technologically advanced world.”

IEEE President Saifur Rahman also attended the ceremony.

A plaque recognizing the technology is displayed outside the Saints Cyril and Methodius University electrical engineering faculty building. The Laboratory of Intelligent Machines and Bioinformation Systems, where the Milestone was achieved, is in the building. It reads:

In 1988, in the Laboratory of Intelligent Machines and Bioinformation Systems, human brain signals controlled the movement of a physical object (a robot) for the first time worldwide. This linked electroencephalogram (EEG) signals collected from a brain with robotics research, opening a new channel for communication between humans and machines. EEG-controlled devices (wheelchairs, exoskeletons, etc.) have benefited numerous users and expanded technology’s role in modern society.

Administered by the IEEE History Center and supported by donors, the Milestone program recognizes outstanding technical developments around the world.

In 2018, the nomination was submitted to the IEEE History Committee by the IEEE Republic of Macedonia Section. It has since been renamed the IEEE North Macedonia Section.

This article has been updated from an earlier version.

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