Warplanes: RAF Droid Drivers Become Legit


April 18, 2013: The British RAF (Royal Air Force) has created a separate career specialty for UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) operators. The RAF’s first four career UAV operators recently graduated from the U.S. Air Force school that trains their American counterparts. The RAF created a special patch (“wings”) for graduates of the RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems) course.

The U.S. Air Force decided to make UAV operators a separate specialty four years ago. Britain, like the United States sees UAVs as the future. It was not difficult to see this coming. Back in 2009, the U.S. Air Force, for the first time, found itself training more UAV pilots than pilots of manned aircraft (which takes much longer).

While the UAV operators don’t actually go into the air, they, arguably, suffer more stress because they spend more time in “contact” (even if remotely) with the enemy. Moreover, flying combat aircraft has become so safe that pilots are in more danger driving to and from the airbase than they are once aloft in a warplane. The UAV operators consider their ground based work more useful than that of the pilots in the air and want a fair share of the promotions as well. The air force leadership is dominated by pilots (of manned aircraft) so there is some friction over this issue.

This growing force of UAVs, which are piloted from the ground, is turning into something quite different from traditional piloting. Increasingly, as the flight control software improves, the pilots do less piloting and more "controlling" (sending a few orders to the airborne UAV and letting the software take care of the details). Initially, the fighter and transport pilots ordered to perform UAV duty were not happy about it. In addition to losing flight pay, they were not flying. While guiding a Predator or Global Hawk from the ground could have its exiting moments, there was no hiding the fact that you were sitting on the ground staring at a computer screen most of the time. Worse yet, you couldn't "feel" the aircraft in flight. Pilots know well that this aspect of flying is one of the most enjoyable, exciting, and useful aspects of their job. Being a UAV jockey had none of the fun, challenge, or extra pay of real flying. The air force finally decided to give the UAV pilots flight pay and promise them they could go back to "real aircraft" after two or three years of UAV work. That led to huge training demands as many more UAV operators were needed but the air force had to train a new bunch every three years. So it was decided to recruit career UAV operators.

A fifteen week training course is used to train air force pilots to operate UAVs. Qualified pilots taking this course had a washout rate of only two percent. For none pilots it’s a bit higher but not as much as expected. Unlike the traditional "pilot and crew" arrangement for aircraft, larger UAVs, like the Predator or Reaper, are operated by a team. Typically the UAV is attended to by a pilot and two sensor operators (NCOs), who monitor what the cameras and other sensors are picking up. Because a Predator is often in the air for 15-20 hours at a time, and is often flying over an active battlefield and is looking very hard for specific stuff, the "crew" has to be changed every 4-6 hours to avoid fatigue. Moreover, each Predator unit might have several UAVs in the air at once. The new software means that each shift needs only one pilot, for up to four airborne Predators, and up to eight sensor operators. The pilots also operate the weapons, if any of the Predators are carrying missiles. But most of the time Predators fly missions without using missiles.

The core of all this is the fact that software is replacing a lot of pilot functions and, eventually, taking the place of human pilots. Many larger UAVs already have the ability to take off, follow a predetermined course, carry out a mission, and then land, all by itself (or "autonomously").


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