The Brain-Computer Interface is the winning project in the 2022 Youth Research Awards in the ICT Social Health category

Each year, the Agency for Management of University and Research Grants (AGAUR) at the Department of Research and Universities holds the Youth Research Awards to foster the scientific spirit among second-year high-school students in Catalonia. The competition is held annually and awards a total of 78 prizes of €850 to the best research projects presented in different categories. 11 prizes are awarded to Catalan secondary schools.

The TIC Salut Social Foundation collaborates in the category of awards related to innovative technology for health and social welfare. The 2022 Youth Research Awards were recently decided and the winning project in the Health and Social ICT category was the Brain-Computer Interface by Mariona Bombardó and Carla de Jesús. Bombardó and de Jesús completed their secondary education at Escola Frederic Mistral – Tècnic Eulàlia in Barcelona and are currently studying Computer Engineering at UPC and Electronic Engineering at La Salle University Ramon Llull.

We spoke with them about their project and how the new generations are constructing and redefining the approach taken by professions related to science, technology, health and social welfare. This is what they told us:

You raised various hypotheses related to neurological interaction between people and machines. What are BCI devices and how do they work?

The acronym BCI means “Brain-Computer interface”. It is a direct communication pathway between the brain of a living being and an external device. Specifically, it captures and interprets brain signals in real time, decoding them and processing them to convert them into commands that will then be performed by an output device. This could be a robotic arm, a computer or a wheelchair, etc. Sensors are the key to communication between the sender, the brain and the receiver, which is the computer that processes the data to produce the desired results.

One of your project’s aims is to connect BCIs to a robotic arm to improve health care and assistance services. Can you briefly explain the concepts Phyton, Arduino and robotic arm? What stages did the project involve?

We used various tools such as Python and Arduino to carry out this work.

Python is a computer language that lets you create software from scratch. This opens up a wide range of possibilities for new projects. In our case, we used this computer language to connect the Emotiv headset, which contained the sensors, with the computer, so it could receive and send commands to the arm by communicating through the Arduino board.

Arduino is a company known mainly for its microcontroller boards. In our work, we used the Arduino UNO Rev3 board.

We were able to write instructions for this board with the software on the Arduino IDE platform (a programming language provided by Arduino). This open-source microcontroller made it possible for every command sent to be performed correctly by the motors in the robotic arm.

Finally, the term robotic arm refers to a set of structural elements that imitate a human arm and perform a set of movements using the motors in its structure.

We followed a series of quite structured steps to do the project.

First of all, once the final topic has been chosen, we conducted exhaustive research of what it was, how it worked and, above all, the biological aspect, as that was the part we knew least about. We also researched the state of the art in this area, i.e. how it was developed, applications already in use, and their advantages and disadvantages, etc.

Once we had done the research and written the theoretical part, we made a list of all the tools and materials we needed to achieve our objectives. The connection between the headset and the computer made it possible for the data received by the sensors to arrive in a way that we could process.

Mariona Bombardó working on the research project

After completing the connection part, we moved on to the design and construction of the arm. We made it with the Fusion 360 app and cut it with a laser cutter. Lastly, we put all the pieces together to build the arm structure.

We then focused on all the electronics, i.e. programming the Arduino code as well as the connections on the board.

Finally, when we had almost all the parts completed separately, we put them together and tried to achieve our final goals.

What results did you obtain and what conclusions did you reach?

We were able to establish this connection and communication between the brain and the external device that we were looking for. Despite the difficulties we encountered along the way. Although we achieved the goals we set at the start, we still had work to do if we wanted to go further in the future. Some arm movements did not quite work out for us.

In the final discussion, you raise issues related to ethics, bioethics and the protection of clinical data in health. What do you think about our society’s current relationship with technology?

Technology and ethics are two concepts that are now very closely linked. Over the years, society has been adapting to new changes very quickly but has hardly had time to think about the possible consequences. Technology has now reached a level that allows what was previously unimaginable to be created. Although this is beneficial and can aid in many aspects of daily life, it can often harm society if it is not thought through beforehand.

So we believe that when technology is used to do good and benefit living beings, it can solve many problems. However, there is still a long way to go and we are quite sure the world will develop to levels that we cannot yet imagine.

Professionally, where do you see yourself in the coming years?

Mariona: I don’t know yet. It is very complicated for young people nowadays, but I think I would like to work in something related to computer science and data analysis. If I have the chance, I would like to go abroad for a year or two to work or study, learn new languages and immerse myself in new cultures.

Carla: It is still difficult for me to know what I would like to do in the future. The field of technology is very broad and, as I am in the first year of university, we still have a lot to learn. So we cannot choose one field or another yet. But I know for certain that I want to finish my degree and do a master’s degree in some specialisation abroad, if I get the opportunity. I would like to find out more about the world, cultures and people, which I also consider important.

  • A Brain-Computer Interface is a direct communication pathway between the brain of a living being and an external device