Will 'mind-controlled' drones take off?

A recent thought-powered drone race could signal a first step in brain-controlled technology becoming more usable and widespread in everyday life.

Jason Dearen/AP
A University of Florida student uses a brain-controlled interface headset to fly a drone during a mind-controlled drone race in Gainesville, Fla.

The University of Florida's inaugural brain-computer interface (BCI) drone competition last weekend was a success for its 16 competitors, who used brain monitors to propel small UAVs through a 10-yard sprint across a basketball court. But the world's first ever mind-controlled drone race was also heralded as an achievement for the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platform, and other technologies powered by brain waves. 

The process was made possible by a BCI computer program which had the "racers" focus on digital cubes displayed on a laptop screen that translated into the drones' movements. An electroencephalogram (EEG) worn on their foreheads picks up the brain's commands, which programmers' codes then translate into ones that the drones, hovering over the court, can understand. 

"With events like this, we're popularizing the use of BCI instead of it being stuck in the research lab," Chris Crawford, a doctoral student in computer science, told the Associated Press. "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."

Brain-powered control is not a brand new science: earlier advances are already being applied to developments in automobile manufacturing, artificial limbs for amputees and trauma victims, and even the control of others' bodies. But while the tech has been used before, it's now becoming accessible to people outside of medical and research settings and could provide progress in a variety of disciplines.

"We’re starting a new trend in society; there will be future brain drone competitions," Juan Gilbert, a University of Florida computer science professor whose students were in charge of the race, says in a video about it. "We're starting out with a simple little race right now. Who knows where this will go? It's exciting."

BCIs are still a long way out from perfect – the drones in the Florida race wavered rather than whizzed down the court – but using thought-control in a competition is the latest example of the tech becoming more widely accessible. The setups used by the university cost around $500 each, as the AP reported, while companies like NeuroSky are offering 'mind-controlled' drones for $230.

Scientists foresee BCIs becoming an eventually ubiquitous component of everyday life, allowing simple control of household items without lifting a finger.

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

The use of thought control does not come without its own challenges and moral questions. As cybersecurity becomes a bigger issue in the tech world, popularizing yet another hackable subject – people – could prove concerning. EEG signals are personal, and their use could be traced back to individuals, a facet of the technology that makes its ethical use more complicated. 

"EEG readings are similar to fingerprints," Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Kit Walsh told the AP. "Once I know what the readings look like from your brain in a certain situation...I'll be able to recognize you by that pattern again later on." 

That may seem innocent enough for BCI drone races, but could add a wrinkle to widespread, everyday use of such systems in the future, including cases where the drones are lethal. A Pentagon-funded program allowing EEG control of multiple UAVs is one example of how the seemingly helpful development could prove more ethically challenging. 

"The progress of the BCI field has been faster than I had thought ten years ago," Dr. Bin He, a biomedical engineer at the University of Minnesota, told the AP. "We are getting closer and closer to broad application." 

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