University of South Florida to host USF Brain-Drone Race in early 2019

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On Feb. 9, 2019, the University of South Florida (USF) will host the 2019 USF Brain-Drone Race, which will feature teams from around the world racing drones using brain-power.

The event, which is free and open to the public, is being organized by USF Assistant Professor Marvin Andujar, PhD, Department of Computer Science and Engineering in the College of Engineering.

Andujar, who led the University of Florida group that first started the competition in 2016, says that the 2019 event will be the world’s first international competition of brain-drone racers, as teams from the United Kingdom, Japan, and Brazil compete against teams from across the U.S., as well as several teams from USF. 

“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.”

According to USF, piloting a UAS using the brain is a combination of neuroscience and computer science. USF says that the underlying technology is part of a much larger field of study into brain-computer interfaces (BCI), which are devices that create a pathway between the brain and an external device, such as a UAS, computer or prosthetic limb, USF says.

To function, BCI technology reads the brain’s electrical signals. Every time a person thinks about something or moves a muscle, the neurons in the brain send electrical signals to one another. Scientists can detect and interpret these signals thanks to technological advances and the development of wearable electroencephalography (EEG) systems, ultimately allowing them to translate the electrical signals into commands for external devices.

In the application of brain-drone racing, researchers link a specific brainwave pattern to forward movement in the UAS, so when the pilot wearing an EEG headband produces that pattern, the UAS is signaled 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 explains.

“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.”

USF notes that BCI technology has other real-life use cases aside from brain-drone racing, as the technology has been in development for medical applications for decades. Patients can use the technology to control a prosthetic limb. BCIs have even helped return partial sight to vision-impaired individuals.

For people who suffer from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is a neurodegenerative disease that destroys nerve cells and causes disability, BCIs are also being refined to provide communication and mobility assistance.

​Clearly, there is there no shortage of uses for this technology.

“From a computer science perspective, there is really an endless number of ways you can apply these systems,” Andujar says. “You can use BCIs in a smart home to open and close doors with your brain. Or, have the environment adapt to you based on your brain activity. It’s pretty incredible to think about what’s possible when you combine biology and neuroscience with technology.”