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Indian scientist to help US troops direct robots with mind

, TNN|
May 22, 2019, 10.23 AM IST
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Gaurav Sharma has won a $20m contract to help develop a brain-machine interface

Highlights

  • An Indian scientist has won a $20 million contract from US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a system that could ultimately allow a soldier to put on a helmet and use his mind to control multiple unmanned aerial vehicles or even a bomb disposal robot
  • Gaurav Sharma is senior research scientist at Battelle
(This story originally appeared in on May 22, 2019)
MEERUT: An Indian scientist in the US who shot to fame after technology developed by his team enabled a quadriplegic man to move his hand using just his thoughts has won a $20 million contract from US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a system that could ultimately allow a soldier to put on a helmet and use his mind to control multiple unmanned aerial vehicles or even a bomb disposal robot.

According to a statement by DARPA, the agency of the United States department of defence, a team headed by Dr Gaurav Sharma, senior research scientist at Battelle - a Columbus-based global research and development organisation - is among six teams to win grants to develop brain-machine interfaces.

Sharma, who hails from Meerut, has been tasked with developing a minimally invasive neural interface for the US military. The 40-year-old will lead the project that aims to develop a nanotransducer to that effect.

The nanotransducer can be temporarily introduced into the body via injection so that the brain is able to communicate through a helmet-based transceiver. The system has been named BrainSTORMS (Brain System to Transmit or Receive Magnetoelectric Signals).

"This is one of the most exciting and thrilling projects I am working on. Through this, we will be pushing the limits of engineering and physics to facilitate man-machine interactions. It also has the potential to revolutionise study of the nervous system," Sharma told TOI on Tuesday over phone from Ohio. The scientist added that work has already started on the project.

Battelle said DARPA has released $2 million in the first round of funding. The rest will be disbursed over four years.

Admitting that the research would push into the realm of what was once considered science fiction, Battelle in a statement said that Sharma's experience in brain-computer interface (BCI) projects is key to the effort's success. Sharma, who completed his Masters in Mechanical Engineering from Rutgers University in New Jersey and holds a PhD in Nanotechnology from Boston's Northeastern University, was instrumental in development of a neuroprosthetic technology named NeuroLife which had made headlines in 2016 when the system enabled an accident victim who was paralysed from waist down to control his limbs using his thoughts.

While NeuroLife technology used a surgically implanted computer chip to carry messages from the brain to the limbs, the DARPA-funded research aims to eliminate the need for surgically implanted electrodes to interface with the central or peripheral nervous systems. DARPA, which is supporting the research under its Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, said that the new interfaces could ultimately enable "diverse national security applications such as control of active cyber defence systems and swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles, or teaming with computer systems to multitask during complex missions".

"By creating a more accessible brain-machine interface that doesn't require surgery to use, DARPA could deliver tools that allow mission commanders to remain meaningfully involved in dynamic operations that unfold at rapid speed," said Al Emondi, DARPA's N3 program manager.
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