14/11/2012 09:44 GMT | Updated 14/01/2013 05:12 GMT

'Drone Pilots Are More Effective When Distracted' Reports MIT

Military drone operators flying deadly aircraft by remote control would be more effective if they were distracted more often, a study has found.

Yes, read that sentence again.

Operating Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) "looks a lot like playing a video game", said the study. But the reality is much more prosaic - even boring. Operators have to serve shifts as long as 12 hours, watching and waiting as automated systems keep vehicles running, often hovering over targets with no input required.

Occasionally, pilots have to decide if targets are hostile, and if so issue a command for a drone to fire. The violent consequences of this are well noted - and debated. But usually they have virtually nothing to do.

The result is that the operators - often experienced fighter pilots - are dulled by the monotony and lose focus, which is when mistakes can occur.

A new MIT study attempted to find out what makes a good UAV pilot, and how their workplaces can be made more stimulating.

They set up a simulation in which participants monitored a UAV 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.

The study found that while the best pilots were those which spent most of their time concentrating on their job - in this case a simulation - the next best performing were those who were distracted nearly one third of the time.

They also found that even though the task only needed their attention 5% of the time, they "made themselves busy" more than double that amount - suggesting they needed more to do.

Mary "Missy" Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said that if pilots were more distracted they may perform better.

"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," she said in a release.

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

As a result the Navy should consider building in distractions or "busybody work" to keep pilots alert. There also has to be a balance in personality traits. An associated study of which personality types make good drone pilots found the more conscientious the better - until it came time to fire a weapon.

"You 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."

"We need people who can monitor these systems and intervene, but that might not be very often... 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."