"Three, two, one ... GO!" the announcer hollers, and as the racers fix their thoughts on pushing the cubes, the drones suddenly whir, rise and buzz through the air. Some struggle to move even a few feet, while others zip confidently across the finish line. The competition—billed as the world's first drone race involving a brain-controlled interface—involved 16 pilots who used their willpower to drive drones through a 10-yard dash over an indoor basketball court at the University of Florida this past weekend.
The Associated Press was there to record the event, which was sponsored with research funding from Intel Corp. Organisers want to make it an annual inter-collegiate spectacle, involving ever-more dynamic moves and challenges, and a trophy that puts the brain on a pedestal.
Scientists have been able to detect brainwaves for more than a century, and mind-controlled technology is already providing for medical breakthroughs, helping paralysed people move limbs or robotic prosthetics. But only recently has the technology become widely accessible. The electroencephalogram headsets the competitors wore can be purchased online for several hundred dollars.
Each EEG headset is calibrated to identify the electrical activity associated with particular thoughts in each wearer's brain—recording, for example, where neurons fire when the wearer imagines pushing a chair across the floor. Programmers write code to translate these "imaginary motion" signals into commands that computers send to the drones.
Professor Juan Gilbert, whose computer science students organised the race, is inviting other universities to assemble brain-drone racing teams for 2017, hoping to push interest in a technology whose potential applications seem to be limited only by the human imagination.
So far, BCI research has largely been about helping disabled people regain freedom of movement. Recently, an Ohio man using only his thoughts was able to move his paralysed hand through a chip implanted in his brain. In Miami, doctors using BCI are helping a 19-year-old man stand on his own after losing the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident.
While implanted devices are more powerful, non-invasive brainwave readers are now much less expensive. Emotiv and NeuroSky are among the startups marketing EEG headsets for hundreds of dollars, with varying levels of quality. The models used by the Florida racers Saturday cost about $500 each.
But as the technology moves toward wider adoption, ethical, legal and privacy questions remain unresolved. The U.S. Defense Department—which uses drones to kill suspected terrorists in the Middle East from vast distances—is looking for military brain-control applications.
A 2014 Defense grant supports 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.