Playing video games really does turn young people into ace drone pilots, according to new research.
They outperformed qualified pilots as unmanned aircraft operators in a series of risky tasks.
The study follows calls by Reaper drone commander Air Marshal Greg Bagwell for the RAF to recruit “18 and 19 year olds straight out of the PlayStation bedroom.”
It pitted video game players (VGPs) against pilots, both private and professional, in a simulated civilian cargo flight to assess their accuracy, confidence and judgement.
Dr Jacqueline Wheatcroft said: “Understanding which potential supervisory group has the best skills to make the best decisions can help to improve UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) supervision.
“Overall, video game players were less overconfident in their decision judgements. The outcome supports the idea this group could be a useful resource in UAS operation.”
The researchers said their findings published in Cogent Psychology highlight the usefulness of video game players as drone pilots.
The move to automatic control has been a feature of aviation over the last 40 years. Drones, or UAS , have outpaced current training regimes resulting in a shortage of qualified pilots.
So Dr Wheatcroft, of the University of Liverpool, and colleagues explored the suitability of three potential UAS groups – private and professional pilots, and VGPs.
A total of 60 participants were asked to make 21 decision tasks in a series of tests which varied across three levels of danger and risk.
As danger increased levels of confidence, accuracy and the relationship between them fell.
The dangerousness of the decision also affected how confident participants were when choosing to intervene or rely on the automation.
Confidence was lower when the operator chose to intervene.
Professional pilots and VGPs exhibited the highest level of decision confidence, with VGPs maintaining the best judgement.
All groups showed higher levels of confidence in decisions controlled by the UAS in comparison to those where the operator manually intervened.
Dr Wheatcroft said: “It has been recognised that UASs, and in particular, those that have the capability to make certain high-order decisions independently can reduce life cycle cost and serve as a force multiplier within the military and civilian world.
“The success and growth in the use of automation and UASs does not eliminate humans from the system – instead it transforms the human role from operator to supervisor.
“Such transformation means that the workload of the human supervisor is not necessarily reduced but instead requires cognitive resource and skills to be applied across a different set of tasks.”
The study participants, mainly male, were divided into four groups of 15, including one that acted as a control, and in each task had to make at least one key decision, such as a rapid ascent or descent.
Dr Wheatcroft said: “Currently, a wide range of individuals can legally operate a UAS.
“These range from professional pilots (e.g. Royal Air Force) to enlisted men (e.g. US Marine Corps) to private individuals.”
But larger systems such as Predator/Reaper or Global Hawk require formal training courses in UAS operations, tactical and theatre operations, battlespace awareness, threats, weapons and sensors.
She added: “The findings here give ground to the idea that VGPs could be considered as a resource.
“VGPs exhibit some skills that may be required in successful UAS supervision, particularly as they are least likely to exhibit overconfidence in decision judgements.”
In December Air Marshal Bagwell, a former RAF deputy commander of operations who oversaw the use of Reapers in Syria, said teenage video game players may be best drilled for operating the weapons.
He revealed the psychological pressure on drone operators in the UK was such that some had quit due to mental stress or illness.
He said the law governing the use of drones needed to be recast due to advances in technology that would lead inexorably to the greater use of remote and autonomously operated weaponry.
Scientists have warned video game aces will wage wars of the future using killer robots.
The US is believed to have been targeting young men who are gaming wizards to train as drone pilots for years.
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