This is Your Brain on Drones: How Mental Models Affect Flight

Cognitive Processes in Drone Flight

These are some thoughts from an upcoming human factors presentation related to UAS I am presenting in Canada, 2015

The study of cognition is very interesting. The way humans think is often broken into conceptual frailties that have roots in one theory or another, and often degenerates into philosophical questions, which, I am more comfortable within, than the science itself. “Cogito ergo Sum – I think, therefore I am,” is perhaps the best known philosophical though on the matter. It offers a foundation for discussion – we exist, because we think, and that really is all we can know. Perception is reality, Descartes would say, and who am I to argue? I will say this, perception isn’t immediate for all situations, or at least it is not complete. The longer an “interpretation” of experience or sensory input takes, the more fatiguing and difficult the mere act of perception becomes. It is this increase in interpretation of environment and situation that is at the very core of human factors issues in sUAS.


Why do I bring this up? This is a blog about drones right? Great question! Essentially, I wanted to ground this discussion is what we can agree to be truth, because from here on out it is going to get pretty wild. Cognition is arguably different for everyone. What we think, is shaped by how we think. How we think is shaped by our environment. Our environment differs dramatically for everyone, and therefore THAT we think is the only real foundational truth for all people – all pilots. Language, senses, upbringing, etc. all play a major role in cognition, and therefore our approaches to a problem vary dramatically.

In the past, pilots have undergone the same training, the same conditioning, the same formatted approach to flying, and the same lessons and rules necessary for first person flight. Hell, we even make all aviators use the same language – English. This isn’t to say their thought processes are all identical, but the approach to problems is ingrained in a pragmatic and objective way. Currently, unmanned aircraft pilots undertake no conditioning, often have no training, and try to operate within a hazard rich environment without context for that environment. Their environment of development is stunted just as a child with no schooling is stunted in their education. They can’t know the hazards that exist, because they can’t know what they don’t know.

If environment shapes our thought processes, and most science on the subject says it does, then drone operators and pilots in the commercial world think differently than any other stakeholder in the airspace. Furthering the cognitive dissonance in approach to flight is the experience itself. Just as a 1st person narrated book can create compelling, emotional, and enriching experiences, a 3rd person narrative creates similar, but very different, experiences. The difference between “I” and “He” or “it” is a fundamentally different association, and the connection to the experiences is vastly different. I encourage you to read a book in one narrative form and then the other, and determine on your own if the experience held great connection in the “I” form. I bet it will.

The Above video is an example of a 1st person video

With drones, this disassociation between pilot and machine is so obvious, that it is often taken for granted. We must examine how the cognitive processes differ between a first person and thirds person experience. An example helps illustrate this problem.

Ex: As a quad-copter turns, its control lay-out is constantly changing when being flown in a third-person experience. As you turn clockwise, your “forward” becomes your previous right, then your previous back, then your previous left, and finally returns to the original forward. In a 1st person context, when flown through the eyes of the drone using front-end goggles, or display, the direction and controls always remain constant.

This obvious change is a significant root cause for a number of small UAS accidents. While many would say, “Oh you just need more practice” or “That’s pilot error,” such simplifications misunderstand a problem with UAS that must be overcome. Standardization of flight, and a lack of understanding in the differences between a co-located pilot and separated pilot, create disconnections that permeate thought processes beyond mere operations.

We need to change operational “mental models” to adapt to a system of flight previously unknown. In fact, UAS flight is more in line with Air Traffic Navigation than manned aviation in this sense, as the ATC controller must project outward not where the aircraft is, but where she believes it is, where it will be, what it is doing, what it will do, and how it will interact with its environment. This is dramatically different than the pilots approach of “What am I doing, Where will I be, or How will I interact with the environment?”

The best way to understand the difference in cognition may be to understand how the next thoughts differ:

1) Identify – React

2) Identify – Interpret –  React

Ultimately, understanding that developing an environment focused approach to mental modelling of flight plans and operations will help diminish the risk to stakeholders in the open airspace.

The above video is a third-person example. It is clearly a different type of drone, but realize how different the experience is and what the cognitive process for flight demands.


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