The University of Florida just held the world’s first mind-controlled drone race

In the last year alone, drone racing has matured from a marginalized hobby into a fully recognized sport, complete with an ESPN partnership and championship prizes of up to $250,000. Last week, the University of Florida took the sport one step further by holding the first ever brain-controlled drone race

Equipped with electroencephalogram headsets powered by brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, participants flew drones down a ten-yard course using only their brainwaves. The race was about as exciting as watching turtles scurry across a parking lot – but the feat was nonetheless impressive.

The electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets are each calibrated to the electrical activity of a given pilot’s brain. While wearing one of the $500 EEG headsets, pilots are told to think about pushing something forward. The headset detects and records the wearer’s neural activity, and feeds this information to programmers who develop code that translates the thought of moving forward into computer commands that move a drone forward.

BCI technology and EEG headsets have applications well beyond drone racing. In fact, BCI sees most of its development in medical research settings, particularly in regard to helping disabled people access and engage with the world around them. But BCI technology may also be used to help us interact with the Internet of Things – the network of interconnected devices from smart thermostats to refrigerators.

Chris Crawford, PhD student in human-centered computing, shared this sentiment with the Associated Press. “With events like this, we’re popularizing the use of BCI instead of it being stuck in the research lab,” he said. “BCI was a technology that was geared specifically for medical purposes, and in order to expand this to the general public, we actually have to embrace these consumer brand devices and push them to the limit.”

The race was organized by computer science students and Professor Juan Gilbert of the University of Florida. With the relative success of the first brain-controlled drone race and the technology’s wealth of potential, Gilbert has invited other universities to build teams for a race in 2017. 

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