Brain-Controlled Helicopters: How Do They Fly?


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Is a mind-controlled helicopter possible? Image by Helen Krasner

At a recent Consumer Electronics Show, a number of attendees were intrigued by ‘Puzzlebox Orbit’, a model helicopter which its inventor claims can be controlled by the operator’s brain waves. So does a mind-controlled helicopter work like a real helicopter?

Puzzlebox Orbit

Puzzlebox is a San Francisco-based company which claims to have been producing brain controlled helicopters for classrooms and television for the past two years.  This latest version consists of a small helicopter enclosed within a metal sphere.  It is designed to be used in two ways: in conjunction with a mobile device such as a tablet or smartphone, or along with Puzzlebox Pyramid, a base unit which attaches to the ‘Orbit’.  In both cases the idea is that the user concentrates, and is able to move the sphere – with the helicopter within it – by means of his or her thoughts, using new technology developed by ‘Neurosky.’

The Role of ‘Neurosky’

Puzzlebox is able to make the Orbit work by using technology invented by Neurosky, a San Jose, California company which has developed a headset which it claims can read brain waves.  Neurosky pairs its headset with games and gadgets produced by other developers, and they have now paired up with Puzzlebox to enable the Orbit helicopter to fly.  Simple, eh?  Apparently, it actually works, and is said to be a useful tool for developing concentration and awareness, as well as clearly being a tremendously fun toy.

The Helicopter Pilot’s Viewpoint

As a helicopter pilot, I was very intrigued by this.  After all, remote controlled model helicopters have been around for years, and in my work as a flying instructor, I have discovered that learning to fly these before trying the real thing is quite useful.  Students I have taught who have flown models first have picked up helicopter flying quicker than those who are starting from scratch.  So would learning to fly the Orbit be likely to help prospective pilots?

I haven’t actually tried this new gadget, but from the information given, and the Puzzlebox website video, I think not!  The Orbit is inside a sphere, and what the controller is actually flying is the sphere, not the helicopter. Real helicopters are controlled by means of four controls: the cyclic, collective, throttle, and yaw pedals; all work individually and all must be coordinated.  That is what makes helicopter flying so difficult initially.  Conventional remote-controlled helicopters work similarly.  But as far as I can ascertain, the Orbit is simply moved as a unit.

Real helicopters are difficult to learn to fly. Image by Helen Krasner

Puzzlebox Orbit: Not a Real Helicopter

Conclusion:  the Puzzlebox Orbit looks like a lot of fun, and I’d just love to have a go at ‘flying’ one.  I can see it being an exciting toy, and maybe a useful way of developing concentration, as its makers claim.  But its connection to real helicopter flying?  Well, as far as I can see… none.

But its developers are most welcome to send me one so that I can try it out for myself and see if I’m wrong!


Puzzlebox. Puzzlebox Orbit. (2013). Accessed January 11, 2013.


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