Ready, Set, Think! Mind-Controlled Drones Race to the Future

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 who used their 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 was sponsored with research funding from Intel Corp. Organizers want to make it 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 Florida 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 is already providing for medical breakthroughs, helping paralyzed people move limbs or robotic prosthetics. But only recently has the technology become widely accessible. The electroencephalogram headsets the competitors wore can be purchased online for several hundred dollars.

Here's how the technology moves from 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...

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