University of South Florida's Brain-Drone Race welcomes diversity and inclusivity



Inside the Yuengling Center on the campus of the University of South Florida (USF), competitors focused intently as they raced to their respective finish lines in front of an enthusiastic crowd of onlookers.  

But the field of 16 competitors weren’t using their legs to compete in a series of drag races taking place over the course of four rounds. Instead, they were using their brains to race drones during USF’s first brain-drone race on Saturday, Feb. 9.

Brain-drone racing is, pardon the pun, the brain child of USF Assistant Professor Marvin Andujar, Ph.D, in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering in the College of Engineering, and his colleague Chris Crawford, who is a professor at the University of Alabama. The two started working on brain-controlled drones when they started their Ph.D program together at the University of Florida in 2012.

Once Andujar — the organizer of the 2019 USF Brain-Drone Race — and Crawford saw drone racing becoming more and more famous, they thought about the idea of a brain-powered drone race, and how it could serve as a universal sport for anybody, as the only physical requirement is to have a brain. This would ultimately allow anyone to be able to compete in one sport, leading to a diverse and inclusive field of competitors.

Diversity was a theme of the 2019 USF Brain-Drone Race, as the competition welcomed USF competitors representing the United States, as well as countries including India, Kuwait, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, Japan and Venezuela.

According to Andujar, before the top 16 competitors competed they had to go through a qualifying round. Based on how many people signed up, USF tried to have different countries, genders and ethnicities represented.

“This is a universal sport,” Andujar told AUVSI after the event. “If there’s no diversity in the field, and even in the teams in terms of who’s hosting it, then it defeats the purpose of the mission that we have.”

The winner of the 2019 USF Brain-Drone Race was Khaled Alshatti from Kuwait, who received a trophy and a new drone.

As the diverse field of competitors competed each against each other, an equally diverse audience made up of all ages, races and ethnicities marveled at the next evolution of drone racing, and even got the opportunity to experience the technology for themselves through demonstrations before and after the event.

Think it, do it

According to USF, piloting a UAS using the brain is a combination of neuroscience and computer science. USF says 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), a neurodegenerative disease that destroys nerve cells and causes disability, BCIs are also being refined to provide communication and mobility assistance.

“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.”

Future competitions

Andujar considers the 2019 USF Brain-Drone race as a pilot and is hopeful that in a year or so the school can host another event based on the funding and sponsorship it is able to obtain. Andujar is hopeful the next event will be bigger, with faster drones that can complete laps.

Eventually, Andujar would like to see USF compete against other universities, such as the University of Alabama, which is scheduled to have its own brain-drone race in April.

Even with these lofty goals for potential future events, Andujar is still very satisfied with how the 2019 USF Brain-Drone race went, especially considering it was organized by a group that doesn’t specialize in event planning or marketing and has a plethora of other obligations outside of this project. He is also very encouraged by how the event was received by the audience.

“I think it was well received, especially since it was the first time ever done at USF, this type of race,” Andujar said. “As people don’t really know what to expect, we didn’t think that many people were going to show up. I think it was great.”