Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or “drones” as they are more commonly known have seen an amazing rise in popularity over the last few years. Everyone from the military and national spy agencies to Internet retailers such as Amazon.com and even individual hobbyists have increasingly made use of UAVs for a variety of reasons and purposes. Today, a future of UAV ubiquity is closer to reality than science fiction.
Historically, the largest user of UAVs have been the armed forces and although UAVs have been used by army units dating back to the Civil War; since 2001they have gradually become one of the major tools of US military and spy operations around the world. Between 2008 and 2012, UAVs were used in over 1,100 military and/or spy missions that targeted individuals. Over the same time period, the number of UAV pilots, in the US Air Force alone, has grown from 400 to over 1,300.
One of the key reasons UAVs have become so popular is the changing nature of warfighting. Whereas in the past, war was generally fought between two opposing armies squared off against another on a specific battlefield, today’s “modern” war on terrorism and transnational threats emphasis disparate fighting areas across the world often with an enemy that is small, highly mobile and extremely adept a hiding their location. In order to effectively fight the modern foe, US military forces needed to precise information about the positioning of the enemy in real time. Technological advances in UAVs proved that they could provide the most effect means of gathering and disseminating that information to military commanders both in the field and remotely. Indeed, UAVs showed that they could perform a number of operations including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) gathering better than the best trained human soldier or agent. Accordingly, as the need for information increased, so did the development, use and deployment of UAVs and as their usage grew, military and spy officials began to realize that the same strengths that made UAVs useful for ISR missions made them equally useful as weapons. Consequently, while the majority of UAV missions are clearly for ISR purposes, there has been a growing trend by both military and spy agencies to use them for more lethal purposes.
Despite the popular idea portrayed in pop culture, movies and TV that UAVs will one day replace human pilots in the battlefield; human are and will remain central to their operation. Moreover, any UAV operation that targets a human must first receive input from a pilot before the attack is commenced. Nevertheless, UAVs are particularly suitable for certain types of missions. Indeed, they are best suited to missions that are either: dangerous; time-consuming or require a high level of informational detail, precision and analysis. The UAV’s automated systems combined with its ability to perform a number of tasks fearlessly, accurately and simultaneously with worrying about fatigue make their deployment on such missions much more suitable than a manned aircraft. First, UAVs can be usefully deployed over a battlefield without worrying that the pilot would be injured, killed or captured if it was shot down. Second, UAVs can be used to monitor hard to reach or hard to access areas such as the high seas or mountain pass for hours, days or weeks at a time without tiring. Third, UAVs can be deployed over a densely built urban area that from the street level is hard to navigate but easily understood from above. On the other hand, a human pilot is more suitable for those missions that include crisis management or split-second decision making. Accordingly, conventional manned aircraft are more appropriate for missions such as rescue operations or clandestine mission with many different parts acting in unison such as the one that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
While the idea of a pilotless aircraft suggests a fundamental difference with a conventional manned aircraft, the reality is that most UAV are still piloted by human beings with the exception that the pilot is operating remotely, sometimes thousands of miles away. Although these pilots are not physically in the aircraft they are operating it as though they are. Accordingly, the job of a UAV pilot and a conventional pilot are much more related than commonly thought. First, the fact that UAV and conventional pilots are flying aircraft illustrates the most obvious commonalities. Both are bound to the mechanics of flying and must understand how to navigate the aircraft according to the forces of lift, weight, thrust and drag. They must also be able to maneuver the aircraft using pitch, roll and yaw and most fundamentally they need to be able to properly takeoff and land the aircraft. Second, both operate the plane from a similarly designed cockpit that includes similar displays, information monitors, steering mechanisms and seating configurations. Third, there is a similar level of automation between the two including in such areas as auto-piloting, emergency sensors and equipment diagnostics.
Notwithstanding the similarities between UAV and conventional pilots, however, the differences are telling. Three of the more challenging difference include: situational awareness (physical cues); reaction response and operational stress. Situational awareness describes the ability of a pilot to understand and interact with the field of operations including both the quality and quantity of information available to him during the actual flight, Unlike as conventional pilot, for instance, a UAV pilot would not be able to use such sensory information as sound, smell or the vibration of the aircraft to tell him how he’s flying or whether and adjustment need to be made. The UAV pilot rather can only rely on the readings being given to him by the UAV sensors which may or may not be totally accurate to the situation on the ground.
Reaction response deals with the amount of time a pilot is required to “take action” in any given situation. While most UAVs are sophisticated pieces of hardware that require constant monitoring during a mission, the fact remains that pilots are removed from the field of operations performing missions that require long periods of waiting or “babysitting” a target often result in long periods of intense boredom for the UAV pilot. This can negatively affect a pilot’s response time if an emergency suddenly presents itself and requires immediate action. While conventional pilots also deal with issues of boredom, the fact that they are in the theatre of operations, that they may physically be at risk and that they a limited in the amount of time they can operate (fly) makes them less likely to succumb to boredom.
Finally, one of the most fundamental differences between UAV and conventional pilots is the amount, type and effect of stress on them. Conventional pilots must deal with the physical and emotional stresses that are normally encountered in physical flying an aircraft such as the effects of gravity when flying as Mach 2, or needing to wear a flight suit, face mask and sun visor to protect from the physical effects that flying has on the body or dealing with panic when a plane’s engine stalls. UAV pilots rarely suffer from such stresses but they must deal with their own forms of stress that a conventional pilot will never encounter UAV pilot stress routinely revolves around working long and unpredictable work shifts that require a higher attention to detail. Indeed, while a conventional pilot might react to flying by what his senses are telling him, the UAV pilot uses a computer screen, ever-changing electronic map and dashboard display to get that same information. If the UAV pilot cannot constantly and accurately monitor this information, problems can occur. Another particular stress of a UAV pilot is that the advanced technology of a UAV gives its pilots an immense and deep level of information about the target of surveillance or the details of an attack. UAV pilots, unlike conventional pilots who operated in the theater but thousands of feet above it, see in detail the results of their missions. This can lead some UAV pilots to develop personal connections to the targets or feelings of remorse for missions that included the killing or bombing of a certain target.
The differences between UAV and conventional pilots are serious enough to have caused some concerns within the military over the future of its UAV programs and whether they will be able to recruit, train and retain enough pilots to satisfy the demand for UAV missions. According to a report by the General Accounting Office, the number of UAV pilots suffering from fatigue, burnout and depression has increased substantially in recent years and lead to a drop in the number of individuals who want to become UAV pilots. In order to turn this around, the military is working on a number of responses that are geared towards making the work of a UAV pilot more comfortable and sustainable. The Air Force, for example has increased its efforts to recruit UAV pilots by creating a specialized UAV unit with clear paths of career advancement, training opportunities and mentors. With more qualified pilots, adjustments can be made in the schedules that UAV pilots are required to work so that they can maintain a more normal rhythm with more periods of downtime which should help fight pilot fatigue and decrease the levels of burnout. Second, UAV pilots are encouraged to make use their professional and personal social support network and contact their commanding officer or other drone pilots to discuss their work, their concerns or experiences. While UAV pilots cannot talk about confidential aspects of their job with family members, they are nevertheless encouraged to spend time with their family members as a way to “take a break” from their work and provide non-work life balance. Third, in response to research that has suggested a growing number of UAV pilots are exhibiting conditions normally suffered by soldiers fighting on the front line such as post-traumatic stress syndrome by assigning appropriate mental health providers to UAV units to help monitor UAV pilots as well as provide the pilots staff to discuss and address their concerns.
Chow, D. (2013, November 7). Drone Wars: Pilots Reveal Debilitating Stress. Discovery.com. Retrieved on May 27, 2014, from http://news.discovery.com/human/psychology/drone-wars-pilots-reveal-debilitating-stress-131107.htm
Chu, J. (2012, November 14). Driving Drones Can be a Drag. Retrieved on May 29, 2014, from http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2012/boredom-and-unmanned-aerial-vehicles-1114
General Accounting Office (2014, April). Air Force: Actions Needed to Strengthen Management of Unmanned Aerial Systems Pilots. Retrieved on May 30, 2014, from http://www.gao.gov/assests/670/662467.pdf
Hoagland, B.T. (2013, August). Manning the Next Unmanned Air Force: Developing RPA Pilots of the Future. Retrieved on May 28, 2014, from http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2013/08/06%20air%20force%20drone%20pilot%20development%20hoagland/manning%20unmanned%20force_final_08052013.pdf
Ourma, J.A., Chappelle, W.L., & Salinas, A. (2011, June). Facets of Occupational Burnout among U.S. Air Force Active Duty and National Guard Reserve MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper Operators. Retrieved on May 27, 2014, from http://wwwdtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a548103.pdf
Spravka, J.J., Moisio, D.A., & Payton, M.G. (2005) Unmanned Air Vehicles: A New Age in Human Factors Evaluation: In Flight Test-Sharing Knowledge and Experience. Retrieved on May 28, 2014, from http://ftp.rta.nato.int/public/pubfulltext/rto/mp/rto-mp-sci-162/mp-sci-162-05a.pdf
Woods, C., & Ross, A.K. (2012, December 4). Revealed: US and Britain launched 1,200 drone strikes in recent wars. Retrieved on May 30, 2014, from http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2012/12/04/revealed-us-and-britain-launched-1200-drone-strikes-in-recent-wars/