Distractions Could Help Military Drone Operators Fight Boredom
November 14, 2012

Distractions Could Help Military Drone Operators Fight Boredom

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Military drone pilots might find their job more interesting if they have some type of distraction, according to a new study.

MIT researchers found that operators working with UAV simulations were less bored, and performed better, when they were just a little bit distracted.

While pilots could find a bit of a rush flying around a drone, sometimes they have to spend their time watching and waiting, while the automated systems keep the vehicle running.

A drone operator could spend up to 12 hours of his shift with a UAV parked over a house, waiting for someone to come in or come out. These situations led the team to look into how serious the problem of boredom could be, and what solutions could help.

Mary “Missy” Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and colleagues believe these unstimulating work environments can impair performance, and make it difficult for an operator to jump into action when necessary.

The team began to investigate how people interacted with automated systems, looking for ways to improve UAV operator performance. Their findings suggest that distractions may help to avoid boredom, and keep people alert during tedious downtimes.

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

They set up an experiment in which participants interacted with UAV simulations in four-hour shifts. During these simulations, subjects monitored the activity of four UAVs, and created "search tasks."

When a UAV identified a target, participants labeled it as hostile or friendly, based on a color-coded system. The hostile targets initiated a command for a UAV operator to fire, destroying the target, and earning points in the simulation.

The team videotaped each participant throughout the experiment, noting when an operator was engaged with the system, and whether they were distracted and facing away from the computer screen. The person who had the highest score overall was the one who paid the most attention. However, the next-best performers were distracted 30 percent of the time, the team found.

They 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. This shows that the operators were wanting more to do, to try and help keep themselves from being bored.

As for the top performer who was focused and not distracted, Cummings is considering cloning her.

“She´s the person we´d like to clone for a boring, low-workload environment,” Cummings said. She went on to say that this type of work ethic may not be the norm among most operators. She added that creating busy work or distractions once in a while may be good for productivity, keeping an operator engaged when he or she may otherwise lose focus.

She said personality may also be a consideration in hiring UAV operators, because during the experiment it played a factor.

The researchers asked the participants to fill out personality questionnaires, ranking them in five categories: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience.

They found that the top performers had a common personality trait of conscientiousness. Cummings said this trait may work well in low-workload environments like UAV operation.

“You could have a Catch-22,” Cummings said in the statement. “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.”

The researchers will be continuing to run experiments to tease out conditions that may help to improve performance and discourage boredom. They are 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 said. “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.”