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    How to Make Flying a Drone Less Boring: Get Distracted

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    Features Editor

    You’re sitting in an air-conditioned trailer somewhere in Nevada, one hand clutching a joystick, the other tapping out commands on a keyboard. You’re a US Air Force (or CIA) Predator drone pilot. You’re about two hours into a 12-hour spy- and kill-shift, and your playback screen shows some village in the remote and craggy tribal areas in the Middle East, or maybe the Horn of Africa. You find your target—a house, a picnic, a funeral, whatever—and focus your high-res sights. You watch, and wait. And wait. And wait. And then wait some more.

    Flying a hunter-killer drone can be mind-numbingly, glazed-eye boring. Who knew? If there were only something—a slight interruption—to break the monotony, to keep you on your toes. As it turns out, both quelling this droning boredom and sharpening your operator performance could be that simple: Just get distracted, semi-frequently.

    That’s according to a MIT Humans and Automation Lab study (.pdf) recently published in the journal Interacting With Computers. Mary “Missy” Cummings, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT who headed up the study, says that “unstimulating work environments,” much like those long-haul shifts in that climate-controlled, claustrophobic desert trailer, can greatly hinder performance. This makes it tough for drone operators to snap out of joystick haze and into action in those instances, few and far between as they may be, requiring a human “in the loop,” so to speak.

    Indeed, one of the bigger misconceptions surrounding US robotic air wars abroad is that it’s 24/7 red-button mashing, high octane, Hellfire-missile-raining whoopass. While it is true that as yesterday’s warfare continues morphing into full-on robotized combat there will be upticks in both the number of surveillance and killer drones cruising above and the frequency with which they gaze and kill, the old adage still holds true. War is bloody boring.

    “It’s an aphorism that ‘war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror,’” Lawrence Spinetta, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a former Predator squadron commander, tells the MIT’s HAL. “That’s true in spades for unmanned aircraft combat operations.”

    To better understand how to alleviate the laxity that so often accompanies these lulls, Cummings’ team arranged for study participants to interact with a drone simulation in four-hour increments. Subjects kept tabs on four drones throughout the scenario while simultaneously creating “search tasks,” or target areas in the artificial war theatre for their drones to go see about. Using a color-coded system, subjects then labeled targets as either hostile or friendly when their aircraft successfully met the given search task. When encountering hostile targets, subjects pulled the trigger, obliterating that hypothetical house, militant-laden picnic, or funeral, and earning points in the process.

    Meanwhile, Cummings and her crew had their cameras rolling on the participants. They took special note when operators engaged wholly with the system, and when he or she got distracted, turning away from their monitors. Not surprisingly, whoever racked up the most points by the end of the simulation paid closest attention to the wargame.

    “She’s the person we’d like to clone for a boring, low-workload environment,” Cummings said.

    But that’s in no way routine operating behavior. Cummings and team found that the second-best performers, who scored just shy of the “winner,” were distracted during roughly 30 percent of the simulation. Leave it to everyday tics—checking that damn phone, reading a few pages in a book, getting up to find a snack—to beak up the dullness of an otherwise foreign scenario. (What, do you fly military drone?).

    True, the study’s highest-scoring participant spent the majority of the four-hour game fixed squarely on the simulation, eyes hardly ever diverting from the screen. But those subject’s with close-second scores carried out the simulation damn near just as well, despite contending with distractions a third of the time. In other words, “operators working with [drone] simulations were less bored, and performed better, with a little distraction.” And tellingly, even though the simulations demanded a human in-the-loop a mere 5 percent of the running time, the team also noted how 11 percent of the time most subjects chose to busy themselves on their own volition to up the stimulation, or simply to stave off boredom.

    In an unexpected twist, when Cummings asked participants in the same kill-drone study to fill out a quick personality study, ranking “extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience,” conscientious pilots were among the top-scoring performers. And so suddenly, you could have a Catch-22.

    “If you’re high on conscientiousness, you might be good to watch a nuclear reactor," Cummings says. "But whether these same people would be effective in such military settings is unclear.”

    Wait, what? Sorry, I was checking my phone.

    Top via Air Force Times

    Reach Brian at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson