Date of Award


Document Type

Dissertation - Open Access

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Human Factors


College of Arts & Sciences

Committee Chair

Dahai Liu, Ph.D.

First Committee Member

Elizabeth Blickensderfer, Ph.D.

Second Committee Member

Albert J. Boquet, Ph.D.

Third Committee Member

Joseph T. Coyne, Ph.D.

Fourth Committee Member

Eric A. Vaden, M.S.


Over the last decade, military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have experienced exponential growth and now comprise over 40% of military aircraft. However, since most military UAVs require multiple operators (usually an air vehicle operator, payload operator, and mission commander), the proliferation of UAVs has created a manpower burden within the U.S. military. Fortunately, simultaneous advances in UAV automation have enabled a switch from direct control to supervisory control; future UAV operators will no longer directly control a single UAV subsystem but, rather, will control multiple advanced, highly autonomous UAVs. However, research is needed to better understand operator performance in a complex UAV supervisory control environment. The Naval Research Lab (NRL) developed SCOUT™ (Supervisory Control Operations User Testbed) to realistically simulate the supervisory control tasks that a future UAV operator will likely perform in a dynamic, uncertain setting under highly variable time constraints. The study reported herein used SCOUT to assess the effects of task load, environment complexity, and automation reliability on UAV operator performance and automation dependence. The effects of automation reliability on participants’ subjective trust ratings and the possible dissociation between task load and subjective workload ratings were also explored. Eighty-one Navy student pilots completed a 34:15 minute pre-scripted SCOUT scenario, during which they managed three helicopter UAVs. To meet mission goals, they decided how to best allocate the UAVs to locate targets while they maintained communications, updated UAV parameters, and monitored their sensor feeds and airspace. After completing training on SCOUT, participants were randomly sorted into low and high automation reliability groups. Within each group, task load (the number of messages and vehicle status updates that had to be made and the number of new targets that appeared) and environment complexity (the complexity of the payload monitoring task) were varied between low and high levels over the course of the scenario. Participants’ throughput, accuracy, and expected value in response to mission events were used to assess their performance. In addition, participants rated their subjective workload and fatigue using the Crew Status Survey. Finally, a four-item survey modeled after Lee and Moray’s validated (1994) scale was used to assess participants’ trust in the payload task automation and their self-confidence that they could have manually performed the payload task. This study contributed to the growing body of knowledge on operator performance within a UAV supervisory control setting. More specifically, it provided experimental evidence of the relationship between operator task load, task complexity, and automation reliability and their effects on operator performance, automation dependence, and operators’ subjective experiences of workload and fatigue. It also explored the relationship between automation reliability and operators’ subjective trust in said automation. The immediate goal of this research effort is to contribute to the development of a suite of domain-specific performance metrics to enable the development and/or testing and evaluation of future UAV ground control stations (GCS), particularly new work support tools and data visualizations. Long-term goals also include the potential augmentation of the current Aviation Selection Test Battery (ASTB) to better select future UAV operators and operational use of the metrics to determine mission-specific manpower requirements. In the far future, UAV-specific performance metrics could also contribute to the development of a dynamic task allocation algorithm for distributing control of UAVs amongst a group of operators.