News Sep 23rd 2016

Sci-Fi Movies Become Reality - The First Brain-Controlled Drones

Girl with a drone

If someone had told you a few years back that you'd be able to control your home's AC from anywhere using just a phone, you would have said they're mad. But what would you say if we told you that you can now control drones using your mind power? "Whoa, Whoa! Hold your horses! That's nuthouse material!" - Right? Wrong!

Although it sounds like a Sci-Fi movie or the rambling of a crazy person, it is actually true. While BCI (brain-computer interface) technologies aren't completely new, and there already is news of paralysed people using brain-controlled prosthetic limbs, using BCI to control drones is definitely something never tried before - until this year.

University of Florida's Most Unusual Race

On April 22 this year, University of Florida held the first race involving drones controlled by the pilots' thoughts. 16 players took part in the event held at Ustler Hall, slowly moving the gadgets forward and side-to-side around the racetrack using only their willpower - having the devices run at 70mph, as usual drones are able to, was not possible.

Through this out of the ordinary event, the organisers aim to popularise the use of brain-computer interface technologies, instead of having them stuck in research labs. Until now, BCI was used specifically for medicine, but it has potential in many other fields - the team led by professor Juan Gilbert wishes to expand the technology to the general public and see how brain-controlled devices can change and improve the way we work, play and live.

The race's organisers hope to turn the event into a yearly inter-collegiate tournament, involving more challenges and more dynamic moves, as well as a trophy.

How Does the Technology Work Exactly?

A BCI, also known as BMI (brain-machine interface) or MMI (mind-machine interface) is a direct communication path between a computerised external device and a wired or enhanced brain. This might not tell you much, but stay with us, as we'll explain everything.

In our case here, the pilots wore electroencephalogram headsets that were calibrated to their brains and recorded their neural activity to identify specific thoughts. For example, they recorded where neurons fired when the pilots were told to think about pushing a chair forward; these signals were then translated into commands bound to the drone, moving it forward each time the same electrical activities were detected in the brain.

Essentially, it is quite similar to setting your keyboard bindings when playing a PC game for the first time - but instead of keys, you use brain waves.

BCI - Past, Present and Future

The BCI technologies that scientists are researching today have their origins in the 1920's, when the electrical activity within the human brain was first discovered and EEG (electroencephalography) was developed. In the 80's, another breakthrough took place, when Apostolos Georgopoulos found a relationship between the direction of arm movements and electrical activity of single neurons. Since the mid-90s, scientists have been able to use complex motor cortex signals and use them to control external electronic devices, enabling mind-controlled technology.

Today, BCI is much more advanced, but there's still a long way to go. Robotic arms controlled by brain activity are already in testing and prove incredibly promising, and scientists are hoping to soon figure out how to build prosthetic limbs that "feel" and work like natal ones.

New BCI medical devices and other machines based on the technology will need to be useful, safe and economically viable - requirements which are not currently met by today's tech, unfortunately. However, in the future, scientists hope to use BCI to help people with quadriplegia, rehabilitate stroke patients, or even gain a deeper understanding of psychiatric disorders. Once science advances enough, the possible applications of BCI are only limited by imagination. At some point in the near future, you may be able to turn on your AC only by thinking of it. Until then, have fun watching the mind-controlled drone race!

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