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Do gamers make for perfect drone pilots?

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The annual revenues for the video games industry is billions of dollars each year, surpassing that generated by Hollywood. With that comes millions of gamers who assume the roles of various characters – from Tier-1 soldiers, firefighters and doctors, to farmers and professional drivers.

Airman 1st Class Caleb Force assists 1st Lt. Jorden Smith, a MQ-1B Predator pilot, in locating simulated targets during a training mission (image: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Nadine Y. Barclay)
Airman 1st Class Caleb Force assists 1st Lt. Jorden Smith, a MQ-1B Predator pilot, in locating simulated targets during a training mission (Image source: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Nadine Y. Barclay)

There is one group of gamers that has received a bit more attention – the US Air Force: first-person shooter players.

A recent study by Associate Professor Missy Cummings at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggested that video game players make for ideal pilots of armed UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), or drones, because players have the right skill sets to conduct operations of high concentration for prolonged periods of time.

The US Air Force is facing a shortage of drone pilots. The resignation rate is reportedly three times higher in that sector than any other branch of the military due to stress and boredom – and as a result, the USAF is actively recruiting video game players to fill the positions.

“The military is filling the acute need for drone pilots by finding recruits with many hours of video game playing under their belts, giving them basic flight training and putting them into the virtual cockpit,” wrote GCN’s John Breeden.

Breeden added that when he visited a simulation conference in Orlando, Florida, he was introduced to new control schemes for the drones and that one such system even made use of a PlayStation 2 controller.

The most well-known drones are General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predator models, both with the ability to be armed with several configurations or armament. The Predator was first introduced in 1995, and at $4-million per unit, can be armed with two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, two AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missiles and six Griffin air-to-surface missiles.

The Reaper is an updated version of the Predator and was only first introduced into the USAF in 2007. At $16.9-million per unit, the model has a flight ceiling of 50,000-feet (15,240 m) and can be armed with up to 14 AGM-114 Hellfire air to ground missiles or four Hellfire missiles and two 500 lb (230 kg) GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs. It also has a maximum speed of 482 km/h (260 kn).

If gaming systems are being used in the war on terror, could gamers be the perfect drone pilots?

“I don’t think being a gamer in itself would make that much of a difference. However with the advances in gaming technology over the years it is now possible to have a near-real aircraft simulator in your home giving you a clear advantage over someone who just enters training,” founder and owner of South Africa’s long-running Lazygamer.net Gavin Mannion told IT News Africa.

A screenshot of the mission 'Death From Above' from Call of Duty. Players served as the gunner in an AC-130 Spectre gunship (image: Activision)
A screenshot of the mission ‘Death From Above’ from Call of Duty 4. Players served as the gunner in an AC-130 Spectre gunship (image: Activision)

Gamers have the distinct luxury of retrying a mission if they fail on their first try, or suffer no real-world consequences for their virtual actions. However, former US F-16 pilot Major Bryan Callahan says that flying drones is nothing like playing a video game – even though the screens and the controllers look similar.

Killing someone with an RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) is not different than with an F-16. It’s easy to think that, to fall down that trap. We’re well aware that if you push that button somebody can go away. It’s not a video game. You take it very seriously. It’s by far nowhere near a video game,” he told Spiegel.

Mannion agrees that while gamers can kill an enemy on the small screen in their living room, they have the ability to make the emotional distinction between a virtual reality and a real-world scenario.

“I think videogames make it easier for the drone pilots to ignore the fact that they are killing real humans. They view everything through a computer screen and cannot be killed by the people they are attacking so I think the similarities are striking. However I don’t think gamers who become drone pilots are any more likely to be desensitised than non-gamers.”

During an AMA on Reddit in January, several unnamed drone pilots confirmed to the Reddit community that they are active gamers and enjoy titles such as Call of Duty – while detailing the level of training that is needed to be a pilot.

“A lot of studying is involved, so we are required to hit the books pretty damn hard. We do, however, have personnel who are in fact licensed pilots ranging from small Cessna planes to regular, commercial planes like 747s. As for the video game part of the job, it usually involves a lot of Call of Duty on our down time.” Another pilot was quick to add that it’s actually rather boring. “I can tell you that this is the [most boring] game of Call of Duty you’ll ever play.”

A MQ-9 Reaper UAV for the U.S Customs and Border Protection (image: Wikimedia)
A MQ-9 Reaper UAV for the U.S Customs and Border Protection (image: Wikimedia)

The pilots highlighted a valid point in terms of recruiting gamers – boredom. Gamers are accustomed to having high action sequences constantly projected on their screens for the duration of their game, but drone pilots often sit for hours just monitoring activity with no real input.

“When the workload is high the best drone operators are those that are video gamers because they know how to handle all of the multitasking. So you want people who really perform under a high workload, which are gamers — but 90 per cent of the time nothing is happening and you need a completely different skill set to (handle) that,” commented Associate Professor Cummings.

While titles such as Call of Duty and the Battlefield franchise endeavour to recreate the real operations in a war scenario, the US Army in particular has also developed video games to drive recruitment into the armed forces with titles such as the freely-available America’s Army.

But Mannion is sceptical about the true nature of such titles being used to lure gamers into combat. “I think games such as America’s Army are a good way to get possible recruits through the front door, but they definitely twist reality and I wouldn’t be comfortable with a video game becoming the primary recruitment tool for any army.”

Gamers could and probably would make for better drone pilots purely based on their technical skills and ability to quickly adapt to fast-changing situations, but, as research and sentiment shows, it comes down to an individual’s ability to concentrate, combat prolonged boredom and acquire indepth knowledge of the systems at hand.

Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor

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