University research reveals shortcomings of the UAS perspective

By Patrick C. Miller | October 25, 2017

Using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to locate objects on the ground isn’t as easy as it might seem, according to a new study by North Carolina State University (NCSU).

The study’s findings highlight the challenge of using UAS technology for emergency operations and other applications. It also provides guidance for future technology and training development.

“Because UAS operate at heights that most normal aircraft do not, we are getting new aerial perspectives of our surroundings,” said Stephen Cauffman, a Ph.D. student at NCSU and lead author of a paper on the research. “We wanted to know how good people are at integrating these perspectives into their perception of the real-world environment—which can be relevant in situations such as security or emergency response operations.

As an example, Cauffman said researchers looked at using UAS to identify a trouble spot and determine how well the visual information from the aircraft could be used to pinpoint the correct spot on a map.

A group of 18 study participants evaluated different views of an urban environment that included multiple objects. In one scenario, participants were shown an aerial view of the environment, then a ground level view of the same environment with one object missing. Participants were then asked to show where the missing object had been located. The study also had participants perform similar tasks comparing two aerial images, two ground images and a ground image followed by an aerial image.

The researchers found that comparing two aerial views got the best results, but that switching from an aerial view to a ground view posed the biggest challenge for study participants. When shown an aerial view followed by a ground view, participants took at least a second longer to estimate where the missing object was—and their estimates were four times farther away from the correct placement of the object than when comparing two aerial views.

“This tells us that incorporating UAS into some situations, such as emergency response, may not necessarily be as useful as one might think,” said Doug Gillan, a professor of psychology at NCSU and co-author of the paper.

Cauffman said the research provides insights into how training and interface design can be changed to improve the performance of UAS operators. “We’ve already conducted additional work on the role of landmarks and perspective in how people are able to process aerial visual information,” he added.

The paper, “Eye In The Sky: Investigating Spatial Performance Following Perspective Change,” was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society this month Austin, Texas.