Drone operators become pretty bored sometimes — but what can be done to keep them awake and alert?
Changing your environment, taking a break for a coffee or procrastinating during the workday apparently boosts overall productivity, according to a number of articles and reports. But what if your job is flying a military drone?
Apparently, the premise is exactly the same for drone operators, according to a study to be published in the journal Interacting with Computers, conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Driving a drone looks somewhat like a video game. Joysticks are used to alter a drone’s path and elevation, landscape images are projected onto a computer screen, and operators can issue commands if a hostile target is within a drone’s sights. However, this is rarely the case, and operators often spend hours gazing at a screen and waiting for something to happen.
Operators of the missile-loaded unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) MQ-1 Predator can spend up to 12 hours in this fashion — a tall order for rebellious, bored minds.
“You might park a UAV over a house, waiting for someone to come in or come out, and that’s where the boredom comes in,” says Mary Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and leader of the study. “It turns out it’s a much bigger problem in any system where a human is effectively babysitting the automation.”
If a mind becomes bored, when it must rapidly fire into action, that is where performance can be impaired. Cummings believes that without a stimulating environment, drone operators can often be limited in this way, and so conducted a study in MIT’s Humans and Automation Lab to investigate.
The team found that operators who worked with UAV simulations became less bored and their overall performance levels improved — suggesting that distractions may keep people alert in downtime situations. Cummings noted:
“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. 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 researchers set up an experiment which involved operators interacting with UAV simulations in four-hour shifts, creating search tasks, monitoring UAV activity, and choosing both hostile and friendly terrains to investigate.
The best performer concentrated on the simulation for the entire shift, whereas the next-best performers were distracted 30 percent of the time, ducking out to check their phone, snack, or read a book.
If a balance between shift time and breaks can be met, this may improve the effectiveness of operators who have to keep alert in missions that can run for months at a time without a day off.
Lawrence Spinetta, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a former Predator squadron commander, commented on the study:
‘It’s an aphorism that ‘war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror’. That’s true in spades for unmanned aircraft combat operations. Attention to detail is required for success. That can go out the window when boredom sets in. Thus analyzing ways to overcome, address and analyze boredom, which is the thrust of this paper, is critical to mission effectiveness.”
Image credit: The National Guard