Put down that controller! It’s a refrain that we’ve probably heard many times in our lives. Stop fiddling with your phone! You can’t play that video game right now, you’ve got homework to do! It’s no surprise that for a lot of people, video games have picked up some unfortunate connotations as loud and obnoxious wastes of time. And, of course, to a certain extent, it’s true – how many college essays have been ruined by a late-night League of Legends session? And how many times have you been caught in class playing Candy Crush or Clash of Clans?
It can be true that video games are a negative influence on us. But what if video games held the key to the next generation of pilots?
Drone aircrafts are a relatively new advancement in the science of aviation. For years, pilots and engineers were used to the idea of the “autopilot”, a simple, reaction-based system that could keep a plane in the air with little to no human input (Contrary to what you may think, it does not involve deploying an inflatable man to fly a plane while you’re away). But of course there is the issue of getting on and off the ground – and all the many calculations that a complicated maneuver inevitably entails. Autopilots can’t do much in combat, which turns into a dizzying show of gravity-crushing dives, loops, spins, and rolls.
As technology increases, more and more solutions have been found to circumvent these same problems. In the Cold War, advances in radio technology and remote controls had created the very first Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. Essentially, a UAV could take off, fly around, and land without anyone at the helm. The “pilot” of the vehicle would sit safely in a faraway control building, far removed from the threat of combat. These early experiments veered down some strange avenues- including automating an entire fleet of Flying Fortresses controlled from a Jeep.
In 1982, Israeli forces deployed a fleet of unmanned drones against Syria’s air force, a rousing success in aeronautics. Suddenly, unmanned vehicles weren’t just expensive toys for bored generals to play with; they were quickly adopted into many major militaries and developed into keen and workable fighting machines. These days, we’ve grown numb to the ubiquity of things like “drone strikes” and “drone raids” on foreign targets. Not only are these aircraft harder to hit, they also pose relatively little risk to pilots. Future unmanned vehicles won’t just be used for combat, however, we should expect to see automated cargo jets, automated passenger planes, and automated research aircraft puttering around the skies in the near future.
But flying an aircraft in the air and controlling one from the ground are very different endeavors. They both require the same razor-sharp senses and lightning reflexes, but there’s a certain visceralness of flying an aircraft that does not surface when you’re flying from somewhere else. Are old-time pilots willing to adapt to the challenge of flying an aircraft remotely?
In an effort to address this problem and recruit the next generation of pilots, researchers from the University’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, led by Dr. Jacqueline Wheatcroft, and the Department of Mechanical, Materials and Aerospace Engineering led by Dr. Mike Jump, tested the suitability of three possible unmanned pilot groups: professional pilots, private pilots, and… video game players. After all, flying an unmanned plane is merely reading data from a screen, adjusting for a slightly delayed reaction, and making split-second calculations with the ultimate goal to survive.
The participants took part in a simple test: a simulated cargo flight. Researchers assessed each group’s accuracy, confidence, and “confidence-accuracy judgements”, involving their risk-taking aptitude.
Each simulation had three levels of difficulty. As the level of danger increased, the relationship between confidence and accuracy decreased, lowering confidence levels. But of the three groups, video game players were the least affected, maintaining a high level of decision confidence across the board. After all, what’s a challenging cargo run other than a tough boss battle? In the future, the past’s battle cry of “chocks away!” may be the future’s battle cry of “game on!”