Judging by the results of a new study, future drone pilots may come from an unconventional—if not terribly surprising—pool of candidates: video game players.

 The proliferation of UAVs in military and civilian operations has created a growing demand for qualified drone pilots. Facing a shortage of trained operators, the U.S. Air Force has begun training enlisted airmen to fly drones like the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. Air Force UAV pilots no longer have to be pilots who first trained to fly fighters or other conventional aircraft. In fact, the debate still rages over just how much traditional piloting skill drone operators need.

The answer may be “not much.”

Forensic psychologist Jacqueline Wheatcroft at the University of Liverpool’s Institute for Psychology, Health & Society teamed up with pilot and aerospace engineer Mike Jump, also at Liverpool, to test video gamers as UAV pilots. Their report, published in the journal Cogent Psychology, compared game players who had flight simulation experience with general aviation pilots and professional pilots from airlines and the military. As a control, a fourth group consisted of non-pilots with no video game experience.

“We measured the personality constructs such as how conscientious they were, how agreeable they were, how open to experiences they were, their neuroticism, extraversion and so on,” says Wheatcroft. “What these tell us is how they are going to react in given situations.”

Drawing on similarities between UAV ground stations and gaming software, Jump created a simulated UAV using Microsoft FSX as the display engine. The simulated aircraft was similar in size and performance to small, fixed-wing aircraft used to train general aviation pilots in the real world. The researchers then watched how the four groups performed during various phases of flight, beginning with taxiing and proceeding through landing.

During each phase, the pilots were subjected to three situations where they had to make a decision involving various degrees of danger and risk. In all situations, the pilots could rely on automated flight systems, or they could fly the aircraft manually.

Professional pilots had the lowest, or best, scores on one of the key personality factors, neuroticism. Says Wheatcroft, “If you have a very low neuroticism score, then you are much more able to face situations” that are stressful. In this category gamers outscored general aviation pilots, and scored nearly as well as the professionals.

When asked how gamers could do so well considering they had never experienced the kind of fear that often accompanies actual flight, Wheatcroft said that may work in their favor, since emotions sometimes get in the way of good decision making.

She stresses that her research isn’t conclusive in favor of gamers making good drone pilots. “There’s not enough research for us to be confident about the outcomes of using particular skill sets and so on. We have put our toe into the water with this. All we’re saying is that [gamers] could have a good skill set for this task.”

Unrelated studies have suggested that playing video games might have other benefits. Video gamers apparently make for better surgeons, according to a 2007 study, and research shows that they tend to have better hand-eye coordination than the non-gaming population.

John Fields is a UAV instructor who manages training and flight operations. His observations largely support Wheatcroft’s work. “I think a lot of the skills that video gamers have in hand-eye coordination, the ability to multitask and that type of stuff carry through to flying un[pilot]ed aircraft systems” especially in the smaller UAVs, he says.

Referring to the electro-optical sensor systems aboard the aircraft at his school, Fields says video gamers “typically do a lot better” at controlling aircraft sensors because of their hand-eye coordination skills. Those systems are guided by a Sony Playstation-type controller.

“I think the larger systems is where your [conventional] pilot is better at operation,” says Fields, “just because they understand all the other aspects” of flying a general aviation type-aircraft.

Wheatcroft and Jump are planning additional research on video gamers and drones. Given Fields’ observations, it may be a rich field for study.