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Boredom may be worst foe for Predator drone operators

Break out the popcorn. Put on some tunes. Check your email once in awhile, especially if you’re flying a remotely piloted spy plane in monotonous circles for hours at a time over a terrorist’s hideout in Afghanistan.

Boredom might be your worst enemy when it comes to paying attention to the target, and a little distraction might result in better performance.

That’s what researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found out when they conducted an experiment on 30 men and women, many with prior military or ROTC experience, who flew simulated unmanned aerial vehicle missions while their actions were chronicled and videotaped.

“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,” said Mary “Missy” Cummings, the MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics who led the research team.

“It turns out it’s a much bigger problem in any system where a human is effectively baby-sitting the automation,” Cummings said in a statement.

The study will be published in an upcoming edition of the journal Interacting With Computers.

One pilot described difficulties flying Predator drones, saying, “Highly skilled, highly trained people can only eat so many peanut M&Ms or Doritos or whatnot.

“There’s the 10 percent when it goes hot, when you need to shoot to take out a high-value target. And there’s the 90 percent of the time that’s sheer boredom – 12 hours sitting on a house trying to stay awake until someone walks out,” said the Predator pilot, who was not named in the report.

UAV pilots who were groomed for their video-game joystick skills, and fighter-pilots-turned-UAV pilots who relied on quick reactions and multi-tasking to succeed in combat, might not necessarily fit the bill when boredom is a factor.

“It is not uncommon in search-and-reconnaissance missions for a UAV pilot to spend the majority of the mission waiting for a system anomaly to occur,” reads the introduction of the team’s 33-page report.

“This reduced need for interaction can result in a lack of sustained attention, leading to boredom with ultimately negative performance consequences such as missed alerts,” the study said.

The researchers also suggest that a little excitement would help the Air Force keep good pilots.

“The U.S. Air Force is currently struggling to retain enough UAV pilots, and the boring environment is one of a number of causes for the low retention,” the report said.

Creech Air Force Base, 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas at Indian Springs, is a hub for operations in which MQ-1 Reapers and MQ-9 Predators armed with laser-guided missiles, or smart bombs and missiles in the case of Reapers, fly missions over Afghanistan and Southwest Asia

The UAVs are launched by crews in-theater, with satellite links feeding video that allows the remote pilots to see where they’re flying and to find, follow and hit targets.

Pilots and sensor operators at Creech weren’t involved in the study, a spokeswoman for the 432nd Wing at Creech said.

She said pilots and sensor operators work six- to eight-hour shifts.

“They might be in the seat for several hours,” said the spokeswoman, a captain named Katherine, who can’t be identified by her last name because of an Air Force policy covering special operations personnel.

“They are allowed breaks, like bathroom breaks, or if they need to go get a snack or a water,” she said, adding that a relief pilot or sensor operator will then take the controls.

Of the 30 participants in the MIT study – 19 men and 11 women ages 19 to 32 – the top performer at finding and destroying targets spent the majority of time focused on the task with some “divided” attention. That means the pilot was glancing at the monitor while talking to others in the room or eating while watching the computer screen.

“Unexpectedly, the second-best participant … was distracted almost one-third of the experiment (and) four of the five top performers were distracted more than one-third of the time,” the team reported.

A “distraction” was defined as “when an operator consciously elects to divert attention from a primary task to an unrelated task” such as talking on a phone.

The MIT study found that “listening to music in a visual task can help to maintain sustained attention.”

The report likened the boredom at work of UAV pilots with that of air traffic controllers, train engineers, anesthesiologists and airline pilots.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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