Drone Technology Reaches New Heights


Peter Singer, author, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (Penguin, 2009), director, 21st Century Defense Initiative, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

Mary "Missy" Cummings, director, Humans and Automation Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, program officer, Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System,
Office of Naval Research, Arlington, Va.

Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief, Wired, founder, DIY Drones and 3D Robotics
San Francisco, Calif.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are replacing boots on the ground in some wars. Commercially, UAVs are being used for things like crop-dusting and flood mapping. Experts discuss advances in drone technology and how to address legal and privacy concerns that stem from their use.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. It seems that almost every day, we hear something about drones, those unmanned flying robots. Sure, drones are being used to protect American personnel in Iraq, they've been used in military strikes in Pakistan, but real estate agents in Los Angeles have been using them to take photos of properties, and thousands of hobbyists across America are building their own plane with a brain right at this very moment.

They can have wingspans the length of a football field, stay aloft in the sky for days at a time. Drones can also be tiny, fleeting and undetectable, mimicking a hummingbird. But no matter their shape, their size, even their purpose, one thing - one fact is indisputable: The technology is here to stay, and it's growing.

What does the future hold? Will we see drones chasing felons like in the film "Minority Report"? Or medical evacuations in the battlefield? And as drones become more widespread, sophisticated, possibly more autonomous, how do we tackle those thorny issues of accountability, privacy, safety, international law?

That's what we'll be talking about this hour. If you'd like to join in, you're more than welcome, our number 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri and get involved in a discussion on our website at sciencefriday.com and our Facebook page, /scifri.

Let me introduce my guests. Dr. Peter Singer is director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at Brookings Institute and author of the book "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century." He joins us from Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PETER SINGER: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Dr. Missy Cummings is currently director of the Humans and Automation Lab at MIT and program officer for the Office of Naval Research. Dr. Cummings joins us from Washington also. Welcome to...

MARY CUMMINGS: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. And Chris Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired. He's also a founder of Do-It-Yourself Drones and 3D Robotics. He joins us from San Francisco. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Thank you, good to be here.

FLATOW: Dr. Cummings, you were a fighter pilot, one of the Navy's first female fighter pilots. How did you get involved in drones?

CUMMINGS: Well, actually it's because of my time flying fighters. I was flying F-18 Hornets in Jacksonville, Florida. And I was blown away by how well the planes could land themselves on an aircraft carrier. And that, coupled with the work I was doing on the tactical Tomahawk, where the Tomahawk could basically guide itself from about 1,000 miles away from its point of landing with near-perfect precision.

You know, I put those two things together, and I knew the days of fighter pilots in the cockpit were numbered.

FLATOW: You really think that someday we're not going to have any?

CUMMINGS: I think we'll always have a need for a few, particularly for air-to-air intercepts, for example, when you might have a plane go into national airspace over the capital. But I think that the heyday of the fighter pilot, the white scarf flying in the air, that day is over, sadly.

FLATOW: Yeah. Dr. Singer, how widespread, then, is the use of unmanned drones by the U.S. military?

SINGER: Well, it's really gone from abnormal to the new normal. The U.S. force that went into Iraq in 2003, we had a handful of these systems, literally a handful. Now there are over 7,500 in the U.S. military inventory in the air. And it's interesting, that means the people behind them are also growing.

I was talking to an Air Force officer a couple of days ago, and he was a fighter pilot, and he actually complained about the tribe of unmanned systems operators, that there's so many of them now. It's a real sea change that's happening out there.

FLATOW: And Chris Anderson, this has all spilled over into the hobbyist community. You build your own drones, right?

ANDERSON: We do. I was amused by that number of 7,500 in the military. We've got about twice that many in the amateur world. Now, our drones are smaller and cheaper and a lot less, you know, capable, but there are tens of thousands of regular folks out there who are building, flying and experimenting with drones right now.

FLATOW: And how much does it cost to get into this hobby?

ANDERSON: Ranging from a few hundred dollars to - I mean, we target everything under $1,000. I think, you know, to have a basic, very competent, autonomous flying vehicle is probably, you know, $600 to $700.

FLATOW: Dr. Cummings, what kinds of jobs are unmanned drones best suited for?

CUMMINGS: Well, in the current military operations, and I would say this is probably true for the immediate civilian applications, are the intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance missions, the ones where you're putting a camera in the sky and looking at some scene for some long period of time.

But as we've seen going towards the strike aspect, where you're actually launching weapons, that's been shown to be quite successful, generally because it can close what they call the kill chain, where you can find a bad guy and potentially shoot the bad guy faster than you could maybe a few years ago.

But the program that I'm working on with the Navy is taking the next step into logistics: How can we rapidly re-supply people in the field? And as was mentioned previously, at the beginning of the show, we're also looking at medical emergency evacuations.

FLATOW: So if you're running out of ammo, you could just call in a drone to bring you some?

CUMMINGS: That's exactly what we're envisioning.

FLATOW: And if you need to evacuate somebody, a drone could come in and take them away?

CUMMINGS: Yes, particularly under fire. The thing that unmanned vehicles can do so well is go into situations where we would not want to take manned assets. So for example if there's a firefight, and it would be very risky for a manned helicopter to go in, this would be the perfect time to send an unmanned helicopter in so that you can take those risks without putting more human life at risk.

FLATOW: Chris Anderson, what kind of things could drones be used for in commercial, in the commercial world?

ANDERSON: Well, you know, that's the big question because right now there's no legal way to - or no easy legal way to use them, you know, in the United States because of the FAA restrictions. And so it's mostly been restricted to amateurs and, you know, educational and university use.

But, you know, we're starting to see, especially as the amateurs explore, we're starting to see some applications emerge. In Hollywood many of the aerial shots you're seeing in commercials and films and television are done with remotely-piloted vehicles with cameras on board.

You're starting to see in crops, a lot of farmers are starting to use these things to, you know, get easy access to the sky, get a kind of a top-down view of their crops and using what's called multi-spectral imaging to look at it with different lenses to see how the water distribution is working and the fertilizer distribution to try to minimize and, you know, minimize chemicals where they're using it.

FLATOW: Peter Singer, I mentioned that real estate agents were using them to take pictures of property. I would imagine that privacy issues are a big issue here with drones.

SINGER: Definitely going to be a big issue. I actually was talking a little while back with a federal district court judge who said very soon we're going to have a Supreme Court case around all this. And it cuts to that, not just, you know, private actors like a real estate agent using these or a couple of the border militias down in Arizona have used them, but also law enforcement agencies.

Already, a couple of them have gotten special licenses to operate them, Miami-Dade, Mesa County in Colorado. When the airspace is opened up, which is scheduled to happen in 2015, that means pretty much every local, state, federal law agency will have this kind of system.

The problem is our Constitution, you know, has the concepts of privacy and probable cause. The police aren't supposed to be able to look over your fence to see what you're doing in your backyard unless they have a search warrant, unless they have probable cause.

Well, now you have a technology that allows you to always peek over the fence. And so, you know, it really opens up some interesting, interesting questions we're going to have to figure out very soon.

FLATOW: And there was just a question this week about Iraq being unhappy that Americans may be - military may be flying drones even as they leave the country militarily, reconnaissance drones over.

SINGER: Yeah, it was a double problem. I was asked by a reporter about it, and I said this concept is so bad it should be in a remake of that "Saturday Night Live" fake commercial for Bad Idea jeans. First you have the State Department operating a military-like technology, or rather not the State Department but its contractors.

And we've seen the State Department not handle its contractors all that well in the past, such as the incidents we've seen with companies like Blackwater. But on top of that, you have, you know, essentially operations going on in another country's airspace.

So there's a rationale for it, you know, we want observation overhead, we've got this massive embassy complex there, but the trade-off, the consequences, the ripple effects that this is having are just completely negative on multiple levels. So it's one of these - you know, I think the story you'll constantly hear from all three of us is that things are moving faster than our policy is catching up to.

We may have the technology to do something, but that opens up a whole host of new legal, political, ethical questions that we haven't figured out yet.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let me see if I can get a quick phone call before the break. Let's go to Al(ph) in Minneapolis. Hi, Al.

AL: Good afternoon, great program. My question, I guess, since when I heard about this, my first thought was, you know, you talked about in the '50s that people are all going to have flying helicopter cars. And then of course the thought was do we want people that can barely drive cars on the ground to be flying over your head.

Well, here you've got potentially thousands or tens of thousands of these things flying in, you know, in open airspace that they say is happening in a few years. Well, where is the, you know, the coordination between air traffic control for regular flying, where's the liability going to happen if they have a mechanical problem and crash into a car down on the road, a building, a person?

I mean, there's a lot of stuff that seems to be not well-thought-out or at least explained to those of us in the public that are interested in it. So what's some ideas?

FLATOW: Chris Anderson?

ANDERSON: Yeah, so right now, we, the amateurs, fly under FAA regulations that restrict us to under 400 feet. So that's below - manned aircraft don't go below 1,000 feet. And we have to stay within visual line of sight. And these are basically the same rules that are applied to remote - radio-controlled airplanes.

So there's really nothing new there. The difference is that we are watching it from the ground and can always take over manual control if anything goes wrong. So they're flying autonomously, but we're staying within eyesight. We also stay away from built-up areas and airfields.

So right now, there's nothing new. These are just like the model...

FLATOW: Well, how is a drone different than a model airplane?

ANDERSON: Well, drones are defined as - at least we define them as capable of autonomy, which is that they can fly by themselves and do missions. You basically click on a map and give it GPS wave points, and it takes off on its own, does its mission and comes back on its own.

The difference is that because of the FAA restrictions, we only fly within the same range as a model airplane would for safety's sake. Now some day there may be sense-and-avoid technologies and a regulatory framework that allows us to fly further but not yet.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to take a break and come back and talk more about drones. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. My guests are Dr. Peter Singer, who is the author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century"; Dr. Missy Cummings, she's currently director of Humans and Automation Lab at MIT and a program officer for the Office of Naval Research; Chris Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired, also founder of Do-It-Yourself Drones and 3D Robotics.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about technology in the world of drones with my guests Peter Singer, Missy Cummings and Chris Anderson. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Dr. Cummings, are drones more or less flying robots, you give them a mission, you push in the coordinates, the waypoints, things like that, and they take off and do their thing?

Or do they still - are they still controlled remotely with a joystick on the ground?

CUMMINGS: Well, there's a mix of those technologies in the military today and also in some of the other applications like for border patrol. But the capabilities are coming, and they're already here in some fashion where you don't even have to enter - click on the map to enter GPS coordinates. You can just click on a general area or tell a group of vehicles to set up some kind of search pattern.

So - and in fact that's what we're striving for, to really give more context, aware control to humans so that they don't have to be experts, and in fact that's one of the big things that we're stressing for my program at the Office of Naval Research. We want to put the capability of a ground soldier or a medic in the field who has no piloting experience at all to grab a tablet, something the size of an iPad, and just request help.

And a helicopter comes and give the help to the person who needs it without a pilot in the loop.

FLATOW: Peter Singer, can we assume that we're not the only country developing drones?

SINGER: Oh, we definitely can assume that. Right now, there's at least 45 other nations out there that are building, buying and using military robotics, and they are nations that range from Great Britain in France to Israel, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, China, you name it.

I think one of the things that's playing out right now is just like what's happened in other fields of technology. There's a catching-up effect going on. The U.S. military spends the most in the world on this, but there's a lot else going on there.

For example, at a recent Chinese arms trade show, there were 25 different of their drone-made systems on display, from, you know, one that looked like a knock-off of our Predator drone, they call it the Pterodactyl, to a stealthy jet-powered kind, so a lot of activity going on there, a lot of concern about what that might mean in the long term.

FLATOW: That drone that the Iranians, that crashed in Iran, and we saw pictures of - allegedly of that drone that was done, how much can they really learn about it? How useful is that drone to them?

SINGER: I make the parallel, and I wonder what Chris would think of this being out in San Francisco, but I make the parallel to when Apple accidentally left one of their new iPhones in a bar. It was an embarrassing episode, whether for Apple or for us, to lose this. It was a propaganda win for the Iranians to change the conversation from about, you know, their nuclear weapons research or the like to us losing the drone and then us embarrassingly, you know, asking for it back.

But as far as actually trying to, you know, overall re-engineer it, exactly copy it, not going to be able to pull that off mainly because you're talking about a combination of both hardware and software and also something that's beyond their own capability.

But I'm sure parts of it have gone on or will go on to places like Moscow or Beijing, and, you know, while that won't help someone create an exact copy of it, certainly useful for their designers there, a lot like, you know, that lost iPhone. Someone couldn't, you know, remake an exact iPhone just by getting it, but it might be useful for inspiration.

So you certainly, you know, would've preferred not to have left it in a bar, just like we would have preferred not to have lost one of our drones over Iran.

FLATOW: Chris, that sounds pretty benign, sort of.

ANDERSON: Yeah, I mean, the advanced technology there is semiconductor and software, which they're not going to be able to dissemble. The stealth technology dates back to the '50s and '60s, and so that's pretty well-understood. The optics, the optics, I don't know exactly which optics, you know, cameras and filters and lenses that they had on there.

They may have been sort of interesting and perhaps the most interesting part of it to whoever the ultimate destination of the drone was. But by and large, you know, the shocking thing is that it went down in the first place, that if the suggestion that somehow some kind of GPS-blocking technology caused it to basically not know where it was and just circle until it ran out of gas, if that is indeed what happened, it does suggest that, you know, the failsafe mechanisms on that drone were not what they should have been.

FLATOW: Let's go to Ron(ph) in Grass Lake, Michigan. Hi, Ron.

RON: Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

RON: Real quick question. Now I've read in several publications that newer airliners, 787, have the ability to take off, be programmed to go to a destination and ultimately land. So what would the difference be between having something like that, not calling that a drone?

FLATOW: Dr. Cummings?

CUMMINGS: That's a great question, and you're very intuitive because there's not really a lot of difference. Every American who flies today has probably been on a plane where the pilot never touched the stick from takeoff to landing. Both Airbus and Boeing planes are capable of this, and so the difference is: Where does the pilot sit?

And this is a big controversy right now, whether or not we're going to have commercial airlines in the future, or probably in the more near term cargo airlines become unmanned. But there's no technical reason that they can't be.

FLATOW: Wait a minute, let me just make sure I heard you correctly.

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FLATOW: You think everybody - that pilots so routinely do this, then, and the plane is so capable of taking off and landing on its own that they don't even touch the yoke or the throttle or any of the breaks or...

CUMMINGS: Not every single aircraft, but yes, there are many out there that are capable of this and do it every day.

FLATOW: And so someday, then, we might just have one pilot instead of two pilots up there?

CUMMINGS: That's a great insight, and in fact there's much research going on right now to do just that because if we are going to move to a commercial airspace where there are unmanned vehicles, it's not going to go from two pilots to none, it will go from two to one and then one to none.

So you will probably see that within your lifetime.

FLATOW: So you - one of the - let's say a big cargo plane that we see, a FedEx or any of those UPS planes, might not have a pilot on at all? That would be the next logical step.

CUMMINGS: I think that that will happen certainly within my lifetime, sooner rather than later, and I think that we're going to see that big breakthrough happen in another country.

FLATOW: Peter Singer, where do you see any big breakthroughs coming quickly or on the horizon?

SINGER: Well, I actually wanted to go back to that past point. You know, people used to talk about elevators that way. You would never ride in an elevator without an expert operator to do it for you. And now we do it without thinking.

Or, you know, subway trains, they used to all have human operators in them, and now essentially those that do have human operators, they're just there for the ride, to be there, usually, it sounds like, to text all the time right before the accident.

So, you know, these things have happened in other parts of transportation, and we shouldn't be stunned that it's going to happen in this area, as well. The challenge that comes out of this is, you know, it's not just issues like FAA regulations, it even goes to areas like how insurance companies react to it.

So, you know, insurance companies haven't figured out, you know, how to deal with accountability when it comes to autonomous cars, and yet Nevada is right now in the act of their legislature there of licensing autonomous cars to be able to drive on their highways, the Google car that's already been tested. So we're going to have an operating car, and yet when and if it gets into a wreck, the insurance companies don't know what to do about it. 1

FLATOW: Yeah, let's go to our next call from Isaac(ph) in Truckee, California. Hi, Isaac.

ISAAC: Hey, how's it going?

FLATOW: Hey there.

ISAAC: Well, I've been dreaming for like 15 years of doing aerial photography with remote-controlled helicopters, and I've gotten to the point now where I can. And I heard the point about the invasion-of-privacy thing, and as far as I know, there's laws against invasion of privacy anyhow. I mean, if I was to put a camera on a long pole, stick it up in somebody's window, wouldn't that be the same thing as putting it on a helicopter? I mean, the laws are already there, right?

FLATOW: Good question. Anybody answer that?

CUMMINGS: Well, I can...

FLATOW: Go ahead, Missy, (unintelligible).

CUMMINGS: Well, you know, because I'm challenged almost every day. I know my students are trying to fly around my window and spy on me. So it's something I actually have to lower my blinds for. And, you know, the question is - and this is why we need to raise it to this level of debate - I can put - my students could put a vehicle outside my window and have a zoom lens, and they could have it maybe 20 feet or 40 feet or 100 feet away.

And so what point then do - are you intruding on someone's privacy? Do you have to be right up next to window, or can you have a really long zoom lens?

ISAAC: You could have a zoom lens on a stick as well, you know, with some wires coming down to a pair of video goggles. I mean, it's all pretty much relative. If somebody wants to invade your privacy, they're going to do it one way or another, right?

CUMMINGS: That's a great insight.

FLATOW: So you're saying the law's there already, and it's just up to someone to test it out and see.

ANDERSON: My sense is that the interpretation of the law has been around the notion of reasonable expectation of privacy, which is that, you know, can you expect to have privacy behind a fence? And, you know, if the case is yes, then, you know, the law tends to protect that.

Presumably, as more and more things are flying overhead, that expectation will decline.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Isaac, good question.

SINGER: There's one other part that I should add to this. It's - these technologies, particularly the next generation of military ones, it's not just about a single camera tracking a single object from a mile overhead, you know, tracking that one white van that's going by.

Now what we have is what's called wide-area surveillance. So it's the ability to peek into everyone's backyard. So it's gathering those that are both suspects but also everyone else's.

So, you know, that expectation of privacy is being changed by the technology that we have out there, and of course the intrusiveness of it, it's not them literally putting the pole to your window. It's something flying miles overhead, constantly, 24/7. That's the world that we're entering into. And, again, this is not, you know, theoretic. We're talking about everywhere from Miami-Dade Police Department to Customs and Border Patrol, to how they're going to police the London Olympics. You name it.

FLATOW: Well, Google Maps does that now already.

ANDERSON: Exactly. And I would just add to that that there's a difference, a difference between sort of, you know, the occasional satellite going overhead or aircraft coming by once a year to take a snapshot, and the notion of kind of, as Peter said, 24/7, the real time, you know, panopticon, the eye in the sky. You know, right now, of course, you can go to Google Maps and you can see your backyard. And if you were, you know, sunbathing nude that particular day, you know, 18 months ago or whenever the plane came by, then there you are in hopefully grainy form. The notion of that being always there and at much higher resolution is what changes the privacy picture.

FLATOW: Peter, let me ask you this question because this was an interesting study we came across, that nearly half the operators of drone aircraft have high levels of job-related stress. If these - these pilots are operating planes from thousands of miles away, yet they're getting post-traumatic stress disorder. How does that happen? They're not even on the scene.

SINGER: Well, I think it points to an important part of this. Too often, when the military uses these, the media talks about it as, you know, some kind of video game effect, that they're - the pilots of them are treating it like a video game, like they don't care. And this study actually shows the opposite. The very existence of the stress shows that, you know, they do care.

Now, what it found was there's a lot of things going on and it's hard to disentangle them. A major part of this is the fact that it's, simply put, they're being ground down, overworked. These units are serving 24/7, 365 days, year after year after year. So one parallel is it's almost like a fire department that has to fight a fire every single day.

And one of the interesting things is they found that the likelihood of stress in the study really skyrocketed. If the folks in the Air Force were doing it 40 hours or less, but if it was over 40, then it made it a much more likelihood(ph), which sort of squares with how we understand ourselves. You know, the longer you work, the more likely you're going to be burnt out.

Another part of this was impact on family and this weird disconnect of being at war, but then, 20 minutes later, sitting at the dinner table with your kids. So, you know, if you compare the soldiers that are in Iraq after they come home from their deployment, they don't fly straight back from Iraq or straight back from Afghanistan. They actually spend three days decompressing at a base in Germany. We don't do that for our new unmanned systems operators.

There's a lot of different theories that are going on, but the point is, I think, we don't understand stress in war all that well, and we've got 5,000 years of the normal kind of it. So to think we understand this new kind after a couple of years would just be, you know, really pushing it.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Peter, I want to follow up on that just for a second. Does that mean - is that because - you said they're working 24/7, 365. Is that because there's so many more drones being produced than we have able-bodied people to control them?

SINGER: It's actually a combination of a lot of factors. One, we're sending out more and more because the demand for them is insatiable on the ground. It's having this exponential effect. They went from something that the military didn't want to - every single patrol that goes out in Afghanistan asks, you know, where's my overhead surveillance? So we're constantly pushing it out there.

Another part of it is the sensors are getting better and better. So you used to be able to track one target. The new version allows you to track 12 targets. The one that comes after that is 92. So the number of people that you needed to track one was a lot. Multiple that times 12, times 92, suddenly it gets way, way more.

And then the final part of this is that the manning levels of these units, we were trying to do too much with too little mainly because, let's be honest, they were the bottom of the totem pole within the hierarchy. They were often kind of not valued as much within the system, and so we weren't manning them the way we should.

That's changing within the Air Force right now, but over the past several years we haven't had enough people moving into these units. Now that's starting to change, but you know, this combination, all those factors going together, it's basically just, you know, at the end of the day trying to do a lot with a little.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Are the drones, at the point, able to make decisions on their own, Missy? I ask also Peter - are able to make decisions about what actions to take on their own?

CUMMINGS: No, not operational drones right now. Those drones - and I prefer to use the word unmanned aerial vehicle because I think drone connotates(ph) a kind of stupidness, which we're getting away from. But there are some research vehicles right now where what I say is we're putting a frontal lobe on them, we're letting them learn to reason about the world around them.

And that's where a lot of the debate comes as to whether or not we should allow the vehicles themselves to execute a decision to kill, for example, to launch a missile, or should that always be under human control. And there's debates across this country. The International Society for Military Ethics, this is the question that they're looking at quite closely. So it is something that people are talking about.

FLATOW: And are they talking about the stress disorder of the operators too?

CUMMINGS: Yes. Not so much at the ethics level as they are in the medical communities. But there are a couple of points I wanted to make about these issues. Number one is one of the problems the post-traumatic stress disorder, you know, and Peter was right, they're not sure what the sources are, but it's something I've written extensively on, that one of the problems is, is that we're taking pilots - pilots of F-15s, pilots of F-16s, people with thousands of hours of fighter experience - and then you're putting them in a trailer for 12, possibly more, hours.

And there's another report that will tell you that 90 percent report moderate to total boredom. In fact, what does happen is they do work long hours, but they sit for a long period of time. The vehicles can actually fly waypoint to waypoint, so not only are they sitting in the trailers for a long period of time, but the vehicle's flying itself around in circles, essentially looking for the bad guy, and then maybe, you know, 10 percent of the time that they're on the job, they actually - the pilots get to do something.

FLATOW: All right. Let me hold you there. We're going to come back and take a little bit more time to let Dr. Cummings finish that thought. Missy Cummings, Chris Anderson, Peter Singer. 1-800-989-8255. We'll be right back after this break.

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the commercial and military uses of drones in the few moments we have left. I was conversing with Dr. Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Automation Lab at MIT. And you're talking about the stress put on pilots who expect to be flying in a plane, and basically they're inside a trailer.

CUMMINGS: That's right. And honestly, as a former F-18 pilot, I can't tell you what would be, you know, more disturbing to me, is to sit in a trailer for all that time when really you want to be out yanking and banking. So there is a question of motivation. And in fact, the Air Force is on it. They recognize that this is a problem, and they've started a new program where they're taking people literally off the street and training them to be unmanned aerial vehicle operators from the very beginning. And that program is being - has had some success, and so it raises a whole new awareness about what does it mean to be a - what they would call a remotely-piloted-vehicle operator, what we would call, you know, an operator of any kind of unmanned vehicle. That skill set - in fact, there has been a study that shows that the skill set of a pilot could actually be counterintuitive to the skill set needed to fly a drone.

FLATOW: Hmm. Yeah. I can imagine there are a lot of kids who play video games to say, I think I'd like to that, and may be ill-suited for that also.

CUMMINGS: We see it all the time in my laboratory, that video game experience does help. It helps when people are under a lot of pressure. Those kids tend to do better except when we do boredom studies. It turns out if you're a video gamer, you tend to do worse.

FLATOW: But do you see what - do see any effects that Peter was talking about, is that they're there, you know, they're killing people - if the drone is killing somebody and then they go and - go out and mow the lawn 20 minutes later?

CUMMINGS: I absolutely agree with that, that that is a problem, although it's not a new problem. We've had this problem ever since B-2 pilots could take off from the middle of this country, fly over to an engagement and come back the same day. I think we're seeing it on a much greater scale, though, than what we've seen in the past.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. One quick question for you, Chris Anderson. Where - if people want to get involve in the drones as a hobby, where should they go? How should they get involved?

ANDERSON: We've set up a community called at diydrones.com, that's doityourselfdrones.com. And there's tens of thousands of people who are just talking about it, sharing ideas, developing technology. It's all open source, and that's the best way to get started. But, you know, you can get a sense of it. There's toys you can buy on the market right now. The Parrot AR drone is a quad copter, four-bladed helicopter you can fly with an iPhone. It's not autonomous. It's not a real drone, but it shares many of the same technologies, and it's a lot of fun and kind of a gateway drug into all this.

FLATOW: Yeah. I've seen them all over the malls these days, a lot of little flying helicopters. Thank you all for taking your time to be with us today.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

CUMMINGS: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

SINGER: Thank you.

FLATOW: Dr. Missy Cummings is director of the Humans and Automation Lab at MIT and a program officer for the Office of Naval Research. Chris Anderson is editor-in-chief of "Wired," also founder of Do-It-Yourself Drones and 3D Robotics. Dr. Peter Singer is director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at Brookings and author of the book "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century."

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