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MIT investigating ways to combat boredom in drone pilots

By

November 18, 2012

Drone pilots (Image: Department of Defense)

Drone pilots (Image: Department of Defense)

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The saying that "war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror” could have been written for military UAV pilots. The news media like to portray drones like the MQ-1 Predator as robot warriors, but behind each one is a human pilot with only limited powers of endurance. On long missions, pilots get bored and distracted, so a team from MIT’s Human and Automaton’s Lab is studying how what can be done to stave off boredom and keep pilots alert.

Flying military drones is often less like being a pilot and more like being a babysitter. Shifts can last up to twelve hours and missions can go on for weeks or even months. In such a situation, maintaining concentration is difficult as the craft circles endlessly over a target where nothing is happening. Boredom does more than make a twelve-hour shift seem like twelve days, it can also cut down on reaction times when the pilot’s attention is needed.

MQ-1 Predator drone (Image: Department of Defense)

As part of the MIT investigation led by Mary “Missy” Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT, groups of drone pilots were given personality tests and then videotaped as they ran simulated missions in four-hour shifts where they monitored four virtual UAVs. They were assigned “search tasks” that involved investigating areas and labeling targets as friendly or hostile. If the target was hostile, the pilots would order the UAV to fire and points were assigned for correctly destroying hostiles. Meanwhile, the videotape recorded when or how a pilot was becoming distracted.

The pilots who could keep their concentration during the entire exercise had the highest scores. The next highest scorers did nearly as well, though they were distracted 30 percent of the time. The simulation required human input only five percent of the time, though the pilots tried to busy themselves with other tasks eleven percent of the time – an indication that they were trying to stave off boredom.

Drone pilot (Image: Department of Defense)

“We know that pilots aren't always looking out the window, and we know that people don’t always pay attention in whatever they’re doing,” Cummings said. “The question is: Can you get people to pay attention enough, at the right time, to keep the system performing at a high degree?”

The problem is partly one of personality. The questionnaires measured the pilots in five categories: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience. It was found that people who scored highly on conscientiousness kept the most alert, but also hesitated the most about firing a weapon.

Drone pilots  (Image: Department of Defense)

“You could have a Catch-22,” Cummings says. “If you’re high on conscientiousness, you might be good to watch a nuclear reactor, but whether these same people would be effective in such military settings is unclear.

One lesson learned from the results is that a bit of distraction is a good thing and that “busy work” can help to break up drone piloting monotony and increase effectiveness. Cummings’ team is continuing their work, focusing on such ideas as introducing alerts to redirect pilot attention, altering shift duration and finding the optimal period for operator productivity. A study of their results will be published in the journal Interacting with Computers.

Source: MIT

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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10 Comments

"but also hesitated the most about firing a weapon."

Isn't that a good thing, based on the well deserved rap drones have of shooting innocents?

Mark C
18th November, 2012 @ 08:50 pm PST

or they could have shorter shifts

Mike Donovan
19th November, 2012 @ 02:26 am PST

Drone pilot must the most frigging boring job on the planet. Also, it seems that piloting today's drones is a messed up. I would prefer to sit in something like simulator with a distant focus display and some kind of motion feedback. That would make it closer to flying an actual plane, but it would also drive the price of the drone up.

flame_can
19th November, 2012 @ 03:35 am PST

Duh. Wouldn't something that "... cut down on reaction times ..." be a GOOD thing?? Quick (short) reaction times are what's needed, after all!

Brian Hall
19th November, 2012 @ 04:34 am PST

Give them MP3 players that have one song on it: Highway to the Danger Zone.

icwhatudidthere
19th November, 2012 @ 08:44 am PST

The display should be the same as in real time feedback cubical simulator similar to a fighter pilot cockpit, is the only way to keep the drone operator from falling at sleep. The operator must feel “telepresence” like his inside the drone, what the drone sees the operator sees and feels instantaneously.

Giovanni
19th November, 2012 @ 08:50 am PST

Might be good test for future manned Mars expeditions... boring long times in space for months.

matthew.rings
19th November, 2012 @ 04:22 pm PST

Use autopilot for flight over & back & manned for combat, recon roles over target only. Use Napods for those pilots, rest areas. And sensors to alert IE Your drone is nearing Target zone, etc.

Stephen N Russell
19th November, 2012 @ 05:43 pm PST

Its simple. Supplement the current interface that only shows instantaneous values for altitude, indicated air speed, engine temps, etc with a EKG style data plot of parameters. The lines will be consistently horizontal except when a change is directed or occures via material/environmental failure. I have a working prototype for anyone to compare.

JBar
20th November, 2012 @ 06:19 am PST

Just saw Missy Cummings on "The Daily Show" with John Stewart. WOW! she is so unassuming, but the gal gots da BRAINS!

Facebook User
24th January, 2013 @ 08:00 pm PST
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