Drone operators are so bored of their jobs that researchers at MiT are exploring ways to distract pilots which could, bizarrely, make them more ‘efficient’.
Despite the joysticks, it’s probably a good thing controlling drones isn’t exactly like a gimmick mission in Call of Duty. Pilots instead spend the lion’s share of their time watching screens and waiting for something to happen, because automated systems actually fly the vehicles. These shifts can last as long as 12 hours.
Associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MiT, Mary Cummings, said the boredom tends to set in when a drone is parked over a house and the operator has to play the waiting game – essentially babysitting the automation until pilots need to initiate a command. Because these scenarios are so dull, a pilot’s performance can be impaired, which will make it all the more difficult when an urgent life or death call needs to be made.
In a simulation, MIT researchers in the Humans and Automation Lab found that by putting distractions in front of the pilots, nearly no difference was made to their performance. Although the top scoring subject had been paying close attention with zero distractions, others, who would occassionally play with their phone or stand up to go get a snack, performed nearly as well.
According to the simulation, human input was needed just five percent of the time. Despite that, most people made themselves busy for 11 percent of the total time, showing that the participants wanted to do more to stop themselves from getting bored.
Cummings believes that either through distractions or busywork, it could be possible to actually increase productivity – as it will keep an operator engaged when they might otherwise be nodding off.
Cummings also suggested personality traits could determine the effectiveness of a drone pilot. Looking at a personality survey the respondents had to fill in before the test, the researchers found that the top performers all had high conscientiousness in common. These people could be well suited to working in low-taskload environments, but again, she warned they might hesitate when it was necessary to fire a weapon.
“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,” Cummings said.
MIT will continue to run experiments on different conditions for drone operators.
Cummings warned that finding the right conditions for drone pilots will be more of a problem in five to 10 years because we’re “going to have so much more automation in our world” – though it could be argued the pilot is in a considerably less anxious position than the people on the ground as the drones hovering above.