In a mind-blowing experiment, University of Minnesota researchers have figured out how to use thoughts to precisely move objects without first drilling a hole in someone’s head.

And that could be a really good thing, allowing patients who have suffered paralysis or who have limited physical abilities to move through their daily lives, researchers said.

“If you really want to benefit a lot of people, it wouldn’t make sense to open a hole [in someone’s head] to put a chip in,” said Bin He, the lead researcher and professor of biomedical engineering. In the university study published Tuesday in the international Journal of Neural Engineering, a person fitted with a skullcap covered with 64 electrodes was able to use his thoughts to manipulate a helicopter through two large rings of balloons hung from a gymnasium ceiling. In simple terms, brain signals were recorded by the cap, sent to a computer, coded and relayed via Wi-Fi to a helicopter.

Translating thought into action all occurred within milliseconds, said research team member Karl LaFleur.

A key part of the experiment, which was captured on a video that was quickly posted on YouTube, was having a camera in the helicopter feed images to a computer screen, allowing the subject to feel as though he was flying in the helicopter, LaFleur said. “It allows for the embodiment of the device, and down the road when they’re using an arm, they need to feel like they’re using their own arm for it to feel natural and really effective.”

He’s research into a brain-computer interface began about a decade ago, setting a milestone in 2004 when he successfully used the noninvasive technique to translate thoughts into moving a computer cursor. His team’s latest success brings the technique into the 3-D world.

“This is, to my knowledge, the most advanced demonstration of what a noninvasive brain computer interface can do,” He said.

Using brain waves to control objects isn’t new, He said. But previous research using noninvasive techniques had limited success. Studies using brain chips were more successful, he said.

But He is determined to help patients without drilling into their heads to insert a chip. “This could lead to broad applications to help a lot of people,” he said.