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Mind meets machine

Students who competed in the Brain-Drone race used electroencephalography (EEG) headbands that read electrical signals from the brain. ORACLE FILE PHOTO/STEPHANIE CORREIA.

Drones are typically controlled in the palm of your hand but this past weekend, USF students proved that they only need the power of their minds to control the aircrafts.

USF hosted its first Brain-Drone Race on Saturday. Students, professors and members of the Tampa Bay community gathered in the Yuengling Center to watch 16 students compete for the Brain-Drone champion trophy.

Racers were randomly paired with other members of their team and took turns racing the drones through 15 rounds of elimination.

After flying through the brackets and making it to the final round, USF student and Kuwait representative Khaled Alshatti came out on top. His interest in virtual reality and inherent competitiveness drove him to join the team and win.

“It feels like professor Xavier, from X-men, trying to use telekinesis,” Alshatti said when trying to describe what it feels like to control the drones.

Alshatti maneuvered the drones from behind a table and explained that, in order to control its movement, racers needed to focus on a computer simulation that he described as “a little cube being pushed forward and back.”

Alshatti, grateful for and proud of his victory, displayed immense admiration for the event’s organizer, Dr. Marvin Andujar.

Andujar, director of the Neuro-Machine Interaction Lab in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, has been researching and developing these drones since 2012.

“I got my bachelor’s in computer science, but I was always fascinated by the brain,” Andujar said.

This fascination, along with his love for technology, are factors that drove him to focus his studies on neuro-machine interactions and brain-computer interface, the technology the drones were created through.

Brain-computer interface is the utilization of brain imaging devices to control and manipulate machines with the human brain.

Racers are trained to imagine some sort of movement (running, walking, jumping) as they wear an electroencephalography (EEG) headband that reads electrical signals from the brain. These signals are then passed through a computer program, written and created by Andujar and his colleagues, that translates them into messages that the drone can understand and interpret into movement.

“The fact that USF is one of the few universities that does research on neuro-machine interactions makes it unique,” Andujar said.

With very few researchers and scientists in this specific field of study, Andujar said he takes pride in what he has created and accomplished. He, alongside other colleagues, have successfully created a Brain-Drone Racing League consisting of three universities: USF, UF and Alabama.

The league has received many requests from other universities to join, including some outside of the U.S., according to Andujar.

Andujar said he hopes that one day the Brain-Drone Race will unify people and universities from all over the world.

“This is an inclusive sport and everyone can do it,” Andujar said. “Women, men, all ages and genders, anyone with disabilities. Everyone can use these drones.”