Pentagon experiments with electric shocks to keep drone pilots awake

Electrical transcranial stimulation uses the same method as electroshock therapy but at far lower currents to improve attention

It sounds like a satirical summary of life in the digital age, but the US Army is having trouble keeping its drone pilots awake and is turning to electric shocks to solve the issue.

Researchers from the Air Force have been experimenting with “noninvasive brain stimulation” - running light doses of electrical currents through specific regions of the brain – in order to improve alertness in the growing number of soldiers who spend hours monitoring surveillance footage from drones and other sources.

The Boston Globe reports that project officials are currently experimenting with a pair of stick-on electrodes that could become “standard issue for some military personnel”, although research is still at an early stage.

In one test conducted at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base subjects were kept awake for 30 hours and dosed with either caffeine or electric stimulation, with a control group given nothing. Those who received the electrical stimulation reported feeling “refreshed” and performed roughly twice as well as those who were given nothing.

The electrical stimulation also compared favourably with the effects of caffeine, which “tanked” after a certain point. Subjects using the electrodes experience none of the side-affects associated with coffee and energy drinks including jitters, elevated heart rates and the post-caffeine “crash”.

The Watchkeeper drone on display at RA F Waddington Electrical stimulation is needed to pay attention to the repetitive footage generated by drones. Pictured, a Watchkeeper drone on display at RA F Waddington.

Although computers and digital technologies are playing an ever greater role in modern warfare, researchers have found that monitoring data streams can be so repetitive that soldiers’ attention drops in as little as 20 minutes. Keeping the individuals tasked with making key decisions based on these surveillance streams is major concern.

“It used to be the people who would win the arm wrestling match would win the war,” Alan Shaffer, the acting assistant secretary of defence for research and engineering, told the Globe.  “In the future it is going to be who can process information most quickly and react to that. If you can’t make sense of all the information coming in around you and get to a decision it has little value.”

The research undertaken by the Pentagon is examining two different techniques: transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation. The first is more widely used and relies on a magnetic field to transfer the electrical current, while the second applies the current directly.

Transcranial direct current stimulation is essentially the same process used in electroshock therapy, but is far less powerful. In one test the subjects of the Pentagon research were given a single milliampere of current for ten minutes. By comparison it takes 150 milliamperes to power the dashboard on a car.

However, scientists are quick to stress the provisional nature of this research. No trials have been conducted into the long-term effects of transcranial direct current stimulation and the studies that have been completed are far from conclusive.

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