U.S. Department of Defense grants $300,000 to UTSA for ‘mind controlled’ drone research

After receiving a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, the Unmanned Systems Laboratory (USL) of UTSA Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering will begin its research of interactions between humans and machines.

The USL lab focuses on developing methods for multiple unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to receive and act on commands given by human brain waves processed through an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap.

Project director and UTSA professor and department chair of the College of Engineering Daniel Pack explained that the project encompasses the three areas of the USL’s research: enhancing human and machine interactivity, improving the ability of UAV’s to coordinate with each other and developing seamless connections among complex mechanical systems.

The research initiative team is lead by Pack and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Yufei Huang, an expert in computational neuroscience. The team plans to complete its first phase by March 2016. The team includes undergraduate, masters and doctoral students.

The team is working on drone flight simulators which allow masters and doctoral candidates to see whether or not their control algorithms will function correctly when programmed to hardware.

The team convenes every Wednesday to share findings and thoughts on research methods. Each week, one member of the research group creates a presentation, and the group provides feedback. Masters’ student Prasanna Kolar said, “We are very open with our comments. We accept all comments, and then we implement them as needed in our research.”

Kolar is an unconventional student. After receiving an undergraduate degree from India and working as a software engineer for approximately ten years, Kolar returned to school for a Master’s degree from UTSA because controls robotics piqued his interest.

Another member of the team, doctoral candidate in electrical engineering Negar Farmani, received her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Iran. With previous experience in bioelectrical engineering, Farmani now focuses on control engineering because of her interest in mathematics.

“We have access to each other’s knowledge, so to speak, and then we help each other out. It is very cooperative, and that is something that I like.” Kolar said, when commenting on the dynamics of the group.

Farmani explained, “It seems that we work independently in our project, but [our work] is related to each other’s. Each of us working on one part and connecting all of them together to form a big project.”

The team’s emphasis on learning, cooperation and versatility in the field of engineering is evident. The researchers hope that the novelty of their research will make great contributions to society.

“We hope that the military uses what we are going to be developing,” Kolar stated, mentioning that the quadcopters they are developing can also be used for rescue operations, “not just wartime, but also everyday stuff.”

Established in 2012, the Unmanned Systems Laboratory will be one of the first institutions to dive into new research for Brain-Computer Interface (BCI).

Although the project is still in its very early stages, Pack declares that the results of the first stage will determine the need for follow-up stages in research.

“In terms of schools who are studying the cognitive capability of humans and interfacing it for machines, in our case cooperative machines, we would be the first one who would be working on this,” says Pack.