Asleep at the Wheel

Driving a drone is (apparently) nothing like playing World of Warcraft

John Joh, Flickr

While fighter pilots risk being shot down, or, in the case of F-22 pilots, suffering oxygen deprivation, it turns out that one of the hazards of flying an unmanned drone is boredom—or at least that’s what researchers at MIT have concluded.

“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, quoted in a study released yesterday by MITNews.

Cummings, a former F/A-18 pilot, is the director of the Humans and Automation Lab in MIT’s department of aeronautics and astronautics. She and her team set up a UAV simulation in which operators monitored the activity of four UAVs during a four-hour shift. Each subject was videotaped, and researchers noted when the operators were engaged, and when they were distracted. Not surprisingly, the operator with the highest score was the one who paid the most attention during the simulation. “She’s the person we’d like to clone for a boring, low-workload environment,” Cummings said.

The next-best performers were distracted a whopping 30 percent of the time—either reading a book, getting up to find a snack, or checking their cellphones.

Is being an unmanned aerial vehicle operator that bad? According to, the worst job of 2012 is lumberjack, followed by dairy farmer and—wait for it—enlisted military soldier. Other hellish jobs include newspaper reporter, meter reader, and conservationist.

In the MIT experiment, participants were asked to rank their personality traits, including extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. Top performers ranked “conscientiousness” as their strong trait. Sounds good, right? Maybe not. “You could have a Catch-22,” says Cummings. “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.”

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