This Woman Flew an F-35 Simulator with Her Mind

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

“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.”

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