First-Of-Its Kind Drone Race Uses Brain-Controlled Interface


By 2016, it’s clear that for better or for worse, we’re living in a world where the sight of a drone is becoming more and more of a commonplace. But watching drones for entertainment is a pastime that many have likely not partaken in — yet.

A recent University of Florida event widened the scope of a drone’s usage even further: the university held a competition in one of its gyms, which featured 16 different pilots racing drones in a 10-metre dash.

However, this was no ordinary race. Each drone was powered by a brain-controlled interface (BCI), which made it possible for the pilots to move their drones through sheer willpower — something which no other drone race has apparently ever seen. The effectiveness of the BCI varied, though. Some drones made it to the race’s finish line with ease, while some had trouble even taking off.

The race was organized by computer science students, who hope that it can become an annual event at the university and help draw the general public’s attention to BCI — something that researchers have been studying for medical uses. In addition, the University of Florida’s ProfessorJuan Gilbert — whose students were in charge of organizing the BCI race — has invited students at other universities to create their own BCI drone racing teams for next year.

But how does BCI technology actually work?

To non-scientists, a technology that allows your brain to control the world around you sounds especially futuristic. However, when you break down the mechanics in how BCI works, it’s clear that it borrows from not-so-recent discoveries, as scientists have actually been able to detect people’s brainwaves for the past hundred years.

BCI technology relies on electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets, which are able to identify electrical activity that is associated with specific thoughts in its user’s brain. The ones that the pilots in the University of Florida race wore, for instance, cost around $500 USD.

For example: if you imagine pushing a chair across a floor, the headset records where in your brain neurons fire when you have this particular thought. This is where the programmer’s role comes in: they are responsible for writing code that translates the user’s thought of moving into a deliberate command, that a computer sends to their drone.

While this technology is undoubtedly exciting, only time will tell if it catches on with the larger public, and if its use can expand outside of racing. If so, the ethics of its usage will need to be weighed and monitored, as there remains much at stake with how much you can — and should — be able to control with your brain.

For more on this story, visit CBC News.

Featured image source: Associated Press

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