This year's New York Times Magazine Year in Ideas reminded me of a good one from last year's edition: "Drone Pilot Burnout", described as follows:

"On its face, it seems like the less stressful assignment. Instead of being deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, some pilots and other crew members of the U.S. military’s unmanned Predator drones live at home in suburban Las Vegas and commute to a nearby Air Force base to serve for part of the day. They don’t perform takeoffs and landings, which are handled overseas. But the Predator crews at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada “are at least as fatigued as crews deployed to Iraq,” if not more so, according to a series of reports by Air Force Lt. Col. Anthony P. Tvaryanas.

When Tvaryanas and colleagues surveyed crews who “teleoperate” drones in war zones a few years ago, they found an alarming result: crew members had “significantly increased fatigue, emotional exhaustion and burnout” compared with the crew of a craft that does have a pilot on board, the Awacs surveillance plane. In response, the Air Force implemented a new shift system, in which the number of days off in a row was increased. This year, in March, Tvaryanas released a fresh survey but the results were no better. There was “a pervasive problem with chronic fatigue,” Tvaryyanas writes, which “can be expected to adversely impact job performance and safety.” The survey also showed that Predator crews were suffering through “impaired domestic relationships.”

Why is this? Part of the problem lies in what Tvaryanas calls the “sensory isolation” of pilots in Nevada flying drones 7,500 miles away. Although there are cameras mounted on the planes, remote pilots do not receive the kind of cues from their sense of touch and place that pilots who are actually in their planes get automatically. That makes flying drones physically confusing and mentally exhausting. Perhaps this helps explain the results of another study Tvaryanas published with a colleague in May, which examined 95 Predator “mishaps and safety incidents” reported to the Air Force over an eight-year period. Fifty-seven percent of crew-member-related mishaps were, they write, “consistent with situation awareness errors associated with perception of the environment” — meaning that it’s hard to grasp your environment when you’re not actually in it."

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Comment by Thomas J Coyle III on December 16, 2009 at 9:14am

I have read on RCGroups FPV forum where fpver's with the video headsets occasionally became disoriented when flying their models over long distances.


Comment by Jason Short on December 16, 2009 at 10:19am
It sounds like the flyers need more sensory input from the drone. Maybe a rumble seat tied to the throttle output and a tilting chair tied to the plane attitude. Why not make it more fun to fly?
They could learn a lot from gamers.
Comment by IKE on December 16, 2009 at 10:36am
Apart from the isolation problem I think a very important factor is the two very different lifestyle these pilots have to live simultaneously. They have to witness and participate in a war and then instantly switch to deal with people (their families included) with a very different state of mind.
I bet if they were stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq although they will face the difficulties of being deployed and be away from home they would have a much calmer state of mind because they will always be surrounded by people which face the same situation.
I would like to see a comparative study between UAV pilots that operate remotely and on site. Of course for this to be useful it must compare teams that have the same task (ex predator pilots) and not Global Hawk pilots from US vs Raven pilots/soldiers in Iraq.
Comment by Jack Crossfire on December 16, 2009 at 11:23am
If sensory isolation is the problem they need to do it using autopilot instead of requiring them to fly manually. There's a 1 second lag in the manual control, which probably screws you up after 12 hours. The only reason they require manual control is probably related to appropriations.

Comment by Thomas J Coyle III on December 16, 2009 at 11:37am

The warfare being conducted by the Predator crews is very impersonal as they probably never see the combatants being targeted by the Hellfire missiles.

That being said, I served in the Navy on a heavy cruiser stationed on the DMZ in 1969 during the Vietnam War. Our cruiser was capable of throwing an 8" shell over twenty miles. We never did see who we were killing inland in the DMZ and I do not think that most of us cared. We were really only interested in the next R&R location.

Just a thought.


Comment by Jordi Muñoz on December 16, 2009 at 1:53pm
I was wondering if adding a moving platforms will improve something? Also simulate white noise vibrations adjusted to the actual RPM of the aircraft motor, etc. That should help... At least the top-gun sound track. ;-)

Comment by Brian on December 16, 2009 at 2:21pm
The top-gun sound track would cause other major problems... Like the AF pilots becoming physically ill due to all that Navy'ness... :P) (No offense TCIII)

Comment by Sgt Ric on December 16, 2009 at 2:26pm
Twelve hours of top gun sound track would be a bit much.

Comment by Morli on December 16, 2009 at 2:35pm
Why not add some actuators like in real/virtual simulators to simulate the senses, ... I am sure the poor ex/real life figher( the documentary I saw was with the ex F16 pilot flying this) missing the feel and adraline rush + mach speeds, view of clouds and above etc.. ...

Comment by Jordi Muñoz on December 16, 2009 at 3:18pm
@Morli thats what i mean with "moving platforms". They are wasting pilot senses.


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