Guided only by the furrowed brow of its stern pilot, the drone hovers forward. The scale is small — an EEG headset, two 30-foot-long tracks in a college gymnasium, and a handful of small, palm-sized quadcopters — but the possibilities are not.
The competition, put on Feb. 4 by the Brain Drone Racing League at the University of South Florida, awarded its winner a trophy and a take-home quadcopter. Despite the modest scale of the event, the Brain Drone Racing League offers insights into the potential and limitations of brain-control interfaces for controlling vehicles.
February’s race was the fourth for the league, which bills the sport as a level playing field across ability distinctions. There’s an esport version, which served as the trial for piloting the drones in physical space. In the virtual and real versions, players wearing an electroencephalogram, or EEG, headset look at the image of a block on a screen. As players concentrate on moving the block, the EEG interprets that electrical activity and translates it into movement, guiding a simulated drone in the virtual competitions or a real one in the live competitions.
Brain Control Interfaces have seen use for decades in various tasks, assisting with everything from prosthetic limbs to communication and mobility. The use of similar interfaces to not just restore ability, but to enable people to operate in new ways, has attracted the interest of DARPA, which in 2015 showed off a brain-control interface used to pilot an F-35 in virtual reality.
The chief advantage of hands-free drone piloting is, well, the hands-free part, but the technology has a way to go before that can turn into a tangible benefit. The concentration of piloting is likely taxing enough, regardless of the control scheme used. If one future role for pilots is commanding drones in addition to piloting aircraft, it’s possible that a hands-free controller could allow simple direction of a craft or even a swarm, with autonomous systems filling in the gaps.
Still, the existence of a Brain Drone Racing League suggests that the possibilities from piloting drones in this way are barely being realized. There are depths to explore. Augmented with autonomy and with EEG-like controllers subtly built into helmets, we might see future robots commanded in battle without words spoken or hands moved. Robots simply flying at the direction of thought.
Here’s a short video about the league:
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.