Does being an ace video game player make you a natural for being a good drone pilot?

This is not really a question about gaming (as such) but real life skills, so I am putting it here. I wondered if being an ace virtual worlds player would translate into being an ace military drone pilot?

I’ve taught many people to fly radio controlled model airplanes and time on an appropriate simulator does help students get started, but there’s something different about actually doing it.
Military drones are at a different level of sophistication, but I think that general rule would apply.

The long range UAVs (Predators and Reapers) are piloted by (surprise) actual Air Force pilots. A local team in theater takes the UAV off, up to altitude, points it in the correct direction and hands off control to pilots in the rear at Creech Air Force Base. These pilots “fly” the programmed mission with input from analysts observing in various HQs. It could be a general observation mission or have a specific target to look for. Targets of opportunity could pop up based on what gets detected. For example, they will follow roadside bombers and pass off to others for action. They could directly engage a vehicle or building based on intelligence or what was observed. After mission, the UAV is returned to the take-off area and control is handed back to the local pilots for landing.

These UAVs fly sub 200 knots and aren’t that maneuverable (tip off is the wingspan). No screaming dive bombing runs, no strafing the countryside, and no dogfights. Routes could be preprogrammed GPS sweeps or directed by the pilots.

I believe a program is being started to train UAV specific pilots. Still would be Air Force Officers. Idea is to enable the regular pilots to get back to flying fighters again. Time assigned to flying the UAVs was supposed to be short but has dragged on due to pilot shortages.

I’ll echo what smthsb said, and add (as an educated wag) that monkey-skill wise, you’d have a 50% advantage over a regular joe off the street. I think this is due to two factors: since the real UAV pilots are real pilots, they have much more real-world experience than a gamer. This is going to make them a better pilot, no matter what. Handling a real-life UAV is going to be a bit different than anything software can produce.

Also, the pilots are military, and they’re going to better understand military direction, concepts, and lingo. I’m not saying a civilian gamer couldn’t do the job (I just don’t know), but I am saying that there’s no good replacement considering the best choice for the job is a military flyer, and the cost of the asset is huge.

I can think of at least one way in which the gamers will be more experienced than the real pilots: Gamers are used to dealing with lag. When a standard pilot does something to the controls, he expects the plane to respond now, but when a gamer does something to the controls, he expects the plane to respond as soon as the signals are able to get to the server and back. Likewise, the gamers would not expect feedback from things like g-forces, which the real pilots might. Not a huge difference in either case, I’m sure, but it might be enough to make the difference between the best and second-best.

On the other hand, I’d think a pilot would be more prepared to deal with turbulence and maybe some other effects of real flying that tend not to show up in games. At least, the games I play - it may be that there are more realistic flight sims that are really, really close to actually flying a plane, but I suspect for your average gamer, there are aspects of physical flight that would be new. [/WAG]

Maybe, but IME, a mil officer and pilot is going to be able to quickly adapt to lag. Stick him and a gamer side by side with two UAVs with a simple flight plan from point A to B, and maybe it’s a draw.

Stick them both in a mission scenario, with real-time developments and direction in a target-rich environment with tactical assets depending on your skills, and I say the mil pilot wins, hands down.

I’m betting the standard pilots are better at handling extreme boredom.

All of this of course, screams out to me to ask:

If you took an Air Force pilot (or any military service fast jet pilot), and plugged them down next to a gamer on an average PC flightsim that neither has used before, how would they compare?

The pilot would certainly have better tactical skills, but the gamer may have an advantage with a non-360 degree view, lack of ‘feel’ inputs, and a comfort with a keyboard/mouse/joystick type setup.

Well, I can’t speak for todays PC sims but back in the late 80’s my 16 yo self was able to fly circles around my fighter pilot father while playing Flight Simulator on the C64.
As a former Snowbird and CO of Canada’s fighter training squadron I have to believe he was a pretty good pilot.

Wired had a good piece on this a year or two ago.

Slightly off tangent - Most modern simulators borrow / and exchange well with gaming technology. Many games show realistic terrain simulations and views (night vision sensors, obscurants, etc…). Control inputs and devices are accurate depictions of real tools in military vehicles, aircraft, and equipment. This is not an accident. The pool of military applicants are mostly gamers and “pre-trained” to handle the modern military / civilian sensors and equipment.

An example would be the Javelin missile. The missile gunner looks through the sight (day/night); spots the target; locks in a set of brackets on the target; and hits the fire switch. Missile is fire-and-forget (no wires or optically guiding) and tracks to and destroys the target whether stationary or evading. 90%+ kill rates are the norm. It’s so simple, you’d feel cheated in an arcade if you didn’t get to do several missions for your money. The simulator for training is exactly the same as a video game scenario and you use the same sight/targeting unit.

A related activity is using medical imaging feedback to guide a surgical tool into the body. In the case of a herniated spinal disk crushing a nerve root in the narrow passageway where it exits the spinal cord, there is an injection procedure that requires placing the needle or tool or whatever it is into this narrow passageway alongside the nerve root without damaging the root (which can cause paralysis) or getting caught in the bone, all several inches inside the body with no great landmarks visible on the exterior. They use X-Rays taken from different angles to track their progress, and rely on an operator being able to steer from these. A fellow doing it on me told me that gamers are somewhat advantaged in learning this skill.

Obviously, you’ve never flown a dog of a general aviation airplane - you can get lag in real airplanes, too. It’s not quite the same, but no, all airplanes do not respond instantly to control input. Especially when flying at low speed.

I would say a lot has to do with the game in question. Some of them have extremely unrealistic physics. On the other, RealFlight, an RC flying simulator, is a very useful training aid. MS Flight Simulator allows you to use real weather condition inputs. Most gamers I know, though, find RealFight and Flight Simulator boring. Most of real flying is different than !EXCITING! !VIDEO! !GAMES!

So, yes, being a gamer might give you and advantage, but it’s only one piece of the pie.

Nor any other airplane, for that matter. I was just brainstorming, there.

I’m not so sure about that. Games with unintentional lag in the controls are rare.

Mind set is what worries me. No matter the input in training, without it becoming the dominant habit, the lack of realizing that if you ‘oops’, there is lebenty eleben thousands of dollars and no local replacement plane right now today for your oops. Real people may die because of the loss of the asset.


I take it you don’t play many online games? You can pick up a lag of a tenth of a second or so just from the speed of light, or much more if you’re routing through satellites at any point. Plus packets can and often do get delayed if your connection isn’t very good, and if the server’s getting badly hammered, the processing can lag you as much as a few seconds.

Yeah but that’s lag between what other people are doing and what you see. All online games I’ve played don’t have any lag between your own controller and whatever you’re controlling, vehicle, person, etc.

A couple of points, from experience with R/C models and model simulators:
It’s important that your input device is the same as the one you’ll be using in real life, because that’s the reactions you’re training. A keypad or a three-axis stick won’t help a lot if you’re going to be using a two-stick input like most models.

Also, I’ll second a previous poster’s statements about the zero-consequence nature of simulators and games. I learned the basic moves for flying helicopters on a simulator, but knowing the expensive consequences of a real-life crash cramped my style once I moved up to an actual aircraft.