The University of Florida recently held the world’s first brain-controlled drone race, and the event left onlookers in amazement. The publication of a YouTube video shows that there were 16 pilots in the race, which made exclusive use of their thinking, along with a software interface, to move the drones. As reported by the Associated Press, each competitor in the brain-controlled drone race wore a black headset with tentacle-like sensors stretched over their forehead in order to record brain bioelectrical activity.
The first brain-controlled drone race just took place in Florida https://t.co/7KgPmQ6wlY— Quartz (@qz) April 25, 2016
“We have a computer program that you look at, and we tell you: ‘Think forward, like think about pushing a chair forward,'” Juan Gilbert, chairman of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Florida, can be heard saying in the video. “So we learn to navigate the drone based on your brain patterns for specific things you’re thinking about.”
As Tech Crunch writes, drone racing is nothing new, and similarly, brain-computer interface (BCI) technology isn’t totally new either. However, last week’s brain-controlled drone race was the first of its kind, and the competition took place in an indoor basketball court at the University of Florida.
Brain-computer interface technology was aimed from the outset for medicinal purposes, but now these university engineers intend to get it to other fields, such as entertainment and the military, for people with physical disabilities.
“We’re starting a new trend in society; there will be future brain drone competitions,” Gilbert was quoted as saying. “We are starting with a simple little race right now––who knows where this will go?”
With the help of a headset that is able to record brain bioelectrical activity, engineers were able to interpret the thoughts of the user and send the signals as orders for the drone without having to handle any console or command. Users “think forward” to move the drone forward and “think right or left” to move it from side to side. The pilot then imagines that movement, and that is when the system interprets the signal and sends it to the drone.
Mind-controlled technology is already publicly available through entrepreneurial companies such as Emotiv and NeuroSky, who sell electroencephalogram headsets for purchase online for several hundred dollars. The models Florida racers used cost about $500 each, the Associated Press reports.
Professor John Gilbert’s science students organized the race, and they are now inviting other universities to organize their own brain-controlled drone racing teams by 2017.
“Drone racing gives anyone the ability to fly like a superhero,” Scot Refsland, chairman of the IDRA, told Newsweek earlier this month. “Because everyone can experience the thrill of racing as if they were sitting in the drone cockpit, the sport is skyrocketing.”
The use of a BCI headset in the burgeoning sport will help to bring the technology to a wider audience, according to University of Florida student Chris Crawford.
For its part, the United States Department of Defense, which already makes use of drones in counterterrorism operations, is showing interest in military solutions based on mind control. In 2014, a defense grant backed the Unmanned Systems Laboratory at the University of Texas, San Antonio, where researchers have developed a system enabling a single person with no prior training to fly multiple drones simultaneously through mind control.
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