By Erin Weeks
Missy Cummings has accomplished a lot of difficult things in her life — she was one of the Navy’s first female pilots, after all — but being a guest on The Colbert Report, she said, was hard.
Cummings told the story of her journey from Naval lieutenant to media drone expert last week at the Visualization Friday Forum seminar series in a talk (video archived here) titled “Designing a System for Navigating Small Drones in Tight Spaces.”
Last semester, Cummings moved her renowned Humans and Automation Lab from MIT to Duke University. She’s wasted no time immersing herself in the new university and volunteered for the semester’s first seminar to introduce herself and her lab’s latest work to Duke’s visualization community.
Cummings’ research over recent years has centered on the development of a smartphone interface through which, she said, anyone can learn to pilot a one-pound drone in three minutes. The technology could be a boon to the U.S. Army, which now issues smartphones to its personnel and mostly relies on cumbersome, gas-powered drones.
The lab tested the technology by asking volunteers to maneuver a drone through an obstacle course both in the field — where they learned wind and cold temperatures are not a drone’s friend — and in simulated environments.
One of the things they discovered in both cases was that individuals who performed well in a spatial reasoning test were more likely to complete the obstacle course. Moreover, these performances tended to be gendered, with men scoring higher than women in spatial reasoning. Interestingly, Cummings noted, other studies have shown women tend to perform better piloting drones in long-term, “boring” scenarios with little action.
Cummings is interested in teasing out the reasons for these results, which could have significant implications for the U.S. Army or companies one day interested in hiring drone pilots.
As Stephen Colbert confirmed, you may be able to fly a drone with three minutes’ training, but that doesn’t mean you can fly it well.