The Boredom of Drone Pilots

Monday, November 26, 2012
Noor Syed, aged 8, killed in a drone strike in Pakistan (photo: Noor Behram, Bureau of Investigative Journalism)

In the strange world of killing others via remote control, where pilots commute from their homes to sit at workstations that look a lot like video games, manipulating joysticks to remotely control drone aircraft (aka UAV) capable of mass killing with a single shot, pilots are experiencing fatigue, burnout, emotional stress…and boredom.


As it turns out, the surface similarity to video gaming is deceptive: unlike the non-stop action promised by cyber gaming, a drone operator spends most of his or her 8- to 12-hour shift watching and waiting—while automated systems keep the vehicle flying—for something to happen that requires human intervention. 

“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,” explains Mary “Missy” Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT. “It turns out it’s a much bigger problem in any system where a human is effectively babysitting the automation.”

In a study in the journal Interacting with Computers, Cummings videotaped test subjects while they operated drone simulators. She found that a bit of distraction reduced their boredom and enhanced their performance. Although the study’s top scorer spent most of his time concentrating on the simulation, those with the next-highest scores, who were distracted almost one-third of the time, did nearly as well. 

The findings suggest that distractions helped relieve boredom, keeping the pilots alert during stretches when they literally had little or nothing to do. 


The U.S. has inflicted 350 CIA drone strikes on Pakistan since 2004 (298 since 2009), killing between 2,586 and 3,375 people, including 472 to 885 civilians, 176 of them children. In addition, the U.S. has launched between 42 and 131 drone strikes on Yemen, killing as many as 1,052, while Somalia has seen 3 to 9 drone strikes that killed up to 170. Both the CIA and the Department of Defense also carry out drone strikes in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Driving Drones can be a Drag (by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office)

Boredom may be Worst Foe for Predator Drone Operators (by Keith Rogers, Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Obama 2012 Pakistan Strikes (Bureau of Investigative Journalism)

The Strange World of Killing by Remote Control (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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