Wings Magazine

Driving drones can be a drag

Nov. 15, 2012, Cambridge, Ma. - On its surface, operating a military drone looks a lot like playing a video game: Operators sit at workstations, manipulating joysticks to remotely adjust a drone’s pitch and elevation, while grainy images from the vehicle’s camera project onto a computer screen. An operator can issue a command to fire if an image reveals a hostile target, but such adrenaline-charged moments are few and far between.

November 15, 2012  By Jennifer Chu MIT News Office

Instead, a drone operator — often a seasoned fighter pilot — spends most
of his shift watching and waiting, as automated systems keep the
vehicle running. Such shifts can last up to 12 hours, as is the case for
operators of the MQ-1 Predator, a missile-loaded unmanned aerial
vehicle (UAV) used by the U.S. Air Force for overseas surveillance and

“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 “Missy” Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics and
astronautics at MIT. “It turns out it’s a much bigger problem in any
system where a human is effectively babysitting the automation.”

says such unstimulating work environments can impair performance,
making it difficult for an operator to jump into action in the rare
instances when human input is needed. She and researchers in MIT’s
Humans and Automation Lab are investigating how people interact with
automated systems, and are looking for ways to improve UAV operator

In a study to be published in the journal
Interacting with Computers, Cummings’ team found that operators working
with UAV simulations were less bored, and performed better, with a
little distraction. While the study’s top performer spent the majority
of time concentrating on the simulation, the participants with the
next-highest scores performed almost as well, even though they were
distracted nearly one-third of the time.


The findings suggest that distractions may help avoid boredom, keeping people alert during otherwise-tedious downtimes.

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
says. “The question is: Can you get people to pay attention enough, at
the right time, to keep the system performing at a high degree?”

Keeping boredom at bay

researchers set up an experiment in which participants interacted with a
UAV simulation in four-hour shifts. During the simulation, subjects
monitored the activity of four UAVs, and created “search tasks,” or
areas in the terrain for UAVs to investigate. Once a UAV identified a
target, participants labeled it as hostile or friendly, based on a
color-coded system. For hostile targets, subjects issued a command for a
UAV to fire, destroying a target, and earning points in the simulation.

researchers videotaped each participant throughout the experiment,
noting when an operator was engaged with the system, and when he or she
was distracted and facing away from the computer screen.

person with the highest score overall was the one who paid the most
attention to the simulation. “She’s the person we’d like to clone for a
boring, low-workload environment,” Cummings says — but such a work ethic
may not be the norm among most operators.

Cummings and her
colleagues found that the next-best performers — who scored almost as
high — were distracted 30 percent of the time, either checking their
cellphones, reading a book, or getting up to snack.

The team also
found that while the simulation only required human input 5 percent of
the time, most people “made themselves busy” in the simulation for 11
percent of the time — an indication that participants wanted more to do,
to keep from getting bored.

Cummings says creating busywork or
distractions once in a while may, in fact, be good for productivity,
keeping an operator engaged when he or she may otherwise lose focus.

Personality complex

says personality may also be a consideration in hiring UAV operators.
In the same experiment, she asked participants to fill out a personality
survey that ranked them in five categories: extroversion,
agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to
experience. The group found among the top performers, conscientiousness
was a common personality trait. Cummings says conscientious people may
work well in low-taskload environments such as UAV operation — although
she says they may also hesitate when the time comes to fire a weapon.

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.”

Cummings’ group is continuing to run experiments to
tease out conditions that may improve performance and discourage
boredom: For example, periodic alerts may redirect an operator’s
attention. The group is also looking into shift duration, and the
optimal period for operator productivity.

“We need people who can
monitor these systems and intervene, but that might not be very often,”
Cummings says. “This will be a much bigger problem in five to 10 years
because we’re going to have so much more automation in our world.”


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