Warplanes: Why UAVs are Getting Smarter

Archives

October 2, 2005: The U.S. Air Force has successfully tested software that allows one pilot to control up to four MQ-1 Predator UAVs. This makes Predator operations more efficient, and cheaper. It also helps deal with a problem the air force created for itself; a UAV pilot shortage. The air force insists that all ground controllers for UAVs be officers, as well as conventional pilots (of manned aircraft). All the other services use non-pilot NCOs to fly the UAVs. Most air force pilots would rather fly a manned aircraft, instead of sitting on the ground sending commands to a UAV.

Actually, there's not much at stake in this dispute, other than possibly settling the decades old controversy over whether all pilots (most of whom are highly trained warriors, not leaders, which is what officers are supposed to be) must be officers. At the start of World War II, the army air force (there was no separate air force yet) and navy both had enlisted pilots. These men were NCOs ("flying sergeants") selected for their flying potential and trained to be pilots. Not leaders of pilots, but professional pilots of fighters, bombers and whatnot. Officers trained as pilots would also fly, but in addition they would provide the leadership for the sergeant pilots in the air and on the ground. As the Army Air Corps changed into the mighty Army Air Force (2.4 million troops and 80,000 aircraft at its peak), its capable and persuasive commander (General Hap Arnold), insisted that all pilots be officers. Actually, he wanted them all to be college graduates as well, until it was pointed out that the pool of college graduates was too small to provide the 200,000 pilots the Army Air Force eventually trained. But Arnold forced the issue on officers being pilots, and the navy had to go along to remain competitive in recruiting. When the air force split off from the army in 1947, the army went back to the original concept of "flying sergeants" by making most pilots "Warrant Officers" (a sort of super NCO rank for experienced troops who are expected to spend all their time on their specialty, not being diverted into command or staff duties.) Many air force pilots envy the army "flying Warrants" because the Warrant Officers just fly. That's what most pilots want to do, fly a helicopter or aircraft, not a desk. But a commissioned officer must take many non-flying assignments in order to become a "well rounded officer." Many air force pilots don't want to be well rounded officers, they want to fly. So a lot of them quit the air force and go work for an airline. But often they stay in the air force reserve, and fly warplanes on weekends, and get paid for it. This is considered an excellent arrangement for the many pilots who take this route.

But now the air force has this growing force of UAVs, which are piloted from the ground. 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 rest.) 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 monitor most of 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.

A fifteen week training course is used to train pilots to operate UAVs. Since qualified pilots are taking this course, the washout rate is only two percent. Some pilots are even volunteering to stay with the UAVs, even though the air force still considers UAV controller work as a "temporary assignment." UAVs have not yet become a distinct "community" in the air force, with an official job description.

The other services save a lot of money using NCOs as UAV controllers. Sergeants and Petty Officers are paid less, and they don't get flight pay. No one has been able to demonstrate any better performance on the part of the air force pilots who operate UAVs. In the long run, the enlisted UAV "pilots" will probably be superior, because they are making a career of this sort of thing.

Unlike the traditional "pilot and crew" arrangement for aircraft, larger UAVs, like the Predator, are operated by a team. Typically, a Predator 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 24 hours at a time, and is often flying over an active battlefield, and is looking real 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 over 90 percent of the time, Predators fly missions without using missiles.

The air force, because of their fixation on officer pilots running UAVs, has taken the lead in developing better flight control software. For their smaller (under ten pound) UAVs (used for base security), the operator cannot "fly" the UAV, but merely enters locations (waypoints) into the laptop used to control the aircraft, or uses a mouse to click on a spot on the map the UAV is to fly to. This way, the air force can justify not having an officer pilot involved.

 


Article Archive

Warplanes: Current 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 


X

ad
0
20

Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close