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The new frontier of mind-controlled drones

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Wearing black headsets with tentacle-like sensors stretched over their foreheads, the competitors stare at cubes floating on computer screens as their small white drones prepare for takeoff.

"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 using 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 organizers hope to make an annual inter-collegiate spectacle, involving ever-more dynamic moves and challenges and a trophy that puts the brain on a pedestal.

"With events like this, we're popularizing the use of BCI instead of it being stuck in the research lab," said Chris Crawford, a PhD student in human-centered computing. "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."

Scientists have been able to detect brainwaves for more than a century, and mind-controlled technology already is helping paralyzed people move limbs or robotic prosthetics. But now the technology is becoming widely accessible. Emotiv and NeuroSky are among startups offering electroencephalogram headsets for purchase online for several hundred dollars. The models Florida racers used cost about $500 each.

Here's how the technology delivers an abstract thought through the digital realm and into the real world: 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 organized the race, is inviting other universities to assemble brain-drone racing teams for 2017, pushing interest in a technology whose potential seems limited only by the human imagination.

As our lives become increasingly reliant on Internet-enabled devices, a concept known as the Internet of things, Gilbert and his team want to know how mind-controlled devices could expand and change the way we play, work and live.

You might use your mind to unlock your car, or explore a virtual world, hands-free. It could be applied for real-time monitoring of our moods and states of consciousness. Researchers are studying whether they can use a big rig driver's mind to trigger a device that will tell him when he's too tired to drive.

"One day you could wear a brain-controlled interface device like you wear a watch, to interact with things around you," Gilbert said.

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 paralyzed hand thanks to 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.

The idea of collegiate brain-drone races pleases Dr. Bin He, a biomedical engineer at the University of Minnesota who first demonstrated a mind-controlled drone in public in 2013.

"The progress of the BCI field has been faster than I had thought ten years ago," He said. "We are getting closer and closer to broad application."

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.

In this system, instead of the pilot thinking certain thoughts to move the drones, she looks at a screen with flickering signals, triggering brain activity that translates into specific movements. "It can accommodate lots of commands, much more than imaginary motion can," UT scientist Yufei Huang said.

But enthusiasts should think carefully before they hand over their brainwaves for purposes that have yet to be conceived or contained, said Kit Walsh, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation with a degree in neuroscience from MIT.

"EEG readings are similar to fingerprints: once I know what the readings look like from your brain in a certain situation," she said. "I'll be able to recognize you by that pattern again later on."

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