Drone enthusiasts use remotes to propel their aircraft and sometimes make delicate course corrections by hand too. However, at the upcoming weekend students at the University Of South Florida (USF) will show the public how they can fly drones using only their mind!
The 2019 USF Brain-Drone Race is being organized by assistant professor Marvin Andujar from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. More than a dozen students will compete in the university’s inaugural Brain-Drone Race in collaboration with the Brain-Drone Racing League; a governing group created to set standards and help organize more races for the emerging sport. Students will race each other to determine who can make their drone go the farthest.
Brain-computer interface (BCI) technology is used to make this feasible. According to USF, the underlying technology is part of a much larger field of study into brain-computer interfaces, a term first coined in the 1970s. BCIs are devices that create a pathway between the brain and an external device, such as a drone, computer or prosthetic limb, the university explains.
First, competitors wear electronic headbands, known as electroencephalography systems (EEG), which capture electrical brain signals. BCI technology reads the brain’s electrical signals to function. Every time we think about something or move a muscle, the neurons in our brain send electrical signals to one another. Technological advances and the development of wearable EEG systems enable scientists to detect and interpret these signals. The electrical signals are then translated into commands for external devices that prompt the drones to move based on a specific thought.
For drone racing, researchers link a specific brainwave pattern to forward movement in the drone. So when the pilot who is outfitted with an EEG headband, produces that pattern, the drone is signalled to move.
“When you imagine a movement, your brain produces the same electrical activity as if you were performing the movement with your muscles,” Andujar says. “For drone racing, we have our pilots imagine they’re pushing an object forward. Then, we capture that signal, classify it and send the information to the drone, which has already been programmed to move when it receives that data.”
Andujar has organized this event, which will include teams from the United Kingdom, Japan and Brazil and teams from across the U.S. He previously led a University of Florida group that started the competition in 2016.
USF hopes brain-drone racing will introduce students to and spur their interest in not just the sport but in neuro-technology research as well. “It’s been amazing to see how much interest there’s been in the field since our first Brain-Drone Race,” Andujar says. “For us, the racing is a way to introduce young people, students and others to this technology and hopefully spur more research into neuro-technologies.”
The university invites the public to watch the races for free from 1 to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday (Feb. 9) at the Yuengling Centre’s Corral Gymnasium, 4202 E Fowler Ave. To attend the event guests must register on eventbrite.com.