Turning video gamers into the ultimate drone pilots

Video game players may be the ideal candidates to operate military drones, but in order to do their jobs, they need distractions to manage boredom in down time, a U.S. researcher says.

Researchers find that distractions boost performance

A U.S. Defense Department photo shows a student pilot and sensor operator man the controls of a MQ-9 Reaper. Studies show that video gamers make adept drone operators. (TSgt Ricky Best/U.S. Defense Department/Associated Press)

Video game players may be the ideal candidates to operate military drones, suggests a study. Problem is, they're so conditioned to non-stop action while playing games that they're prone to boredom in real-life scenarios, said associate professor Missy Cummings, who has studied how to improve drone pilots' performance at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"When the workload is high the best drone operators are those that are video gamers because they know how to handle all of the multitasking," said Cummings, pointing to studies that have shown the adeptness of video gamers as drone operators.

"So you want people who really perform under a high workload, which are gamers — but 90 per cent of the time nothing is happening and you need a completely different skill set to (handle) that."

Distractions needed

Cummings said her research team found that in order to do their jobs, drone operators needed some distractions to manage boredom in down time, including playing with their smartphones, using laptops, reading magazines, eating or sleeping.

"When you distract yourself, you're basically revving up your brain," Cummings said. "We need to figure out is it possible to let people have some level of distraction but still keep them engaged enough so that when an alarm goes, for example, or when that plane does enter the sector they respond appropriately."

Cummings said she and her team are looking at whether technology can be used to control distractions, such as a small vibrating device that would "give you a little buzz."

"Can we actually take people who are very prone to boredom and actually improve their performance by using some technology to get them to re-engage?"

Personality makes a difference

Cummings said the only personality trait the studies found to help predict who will be better drone operators was conscientiousness. Those who scored high on conscientiousness did better when the environment became boring.

But she said it's difficult to say if a conscientious drone operator would be effective in a military setting and would have any unease about firing a missile.

"The U.S. military does not currently assign people to jobs based on personality traits. This is definitely an area that needs more research," she said.

Drone use by the American military to strike against terrorists is controversial, particularly when there's collateral damage.

Margaret Somerville, a professor at the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law in Montreal, said drone operators are not in danger of being killed and don't directly see their victims.

"To what extent are they becoming more like automatons and less like human beings making decisions," said Somerville, "and hopefully taking into the account the ethics of what they're doing."