Warplanes: UAV Operators Headed for Extinction


December9, 2006: The U.S. Air Force has greatly expanded the training of UAV operators. In 2005, the air force was running four UAV Predator crew training classes a year, each class producing twelve crews (one officer pilot and one enlisted sensor operator.) This year, the air force is running eight classes, each one producing 120 crews. The Predator course takes ten weeks, with each crew getting at least eleven hours of running a Predator in flight. The air force has also bought seven Predator flight simulators, at a cost of about a million dollars each. The first three were shipped this month.

The army has also increased UAV operator training, and actually has far more UAVs than the air force. But most of the army UAVs are micro (under ten pounds) models, used by combat units (companies and battalion size units). These UAVs are designed to be very simple to use, requiring little formal training. Brigades and divisions use larger, but smaller than Predator, models. Most army UAV operators are not, like air force ones, pilots. All Predator operators must first have already served at least a few years as the pilot of a manned aircraft. In the army, enlisted operators are the rule, and training is often OJT (on-the-job).

The marines follow the army model, while the navy has fewer UAVs at present. But the navy is experimenting with replacing some of their naval reconnaissance aircraft (P-3s) with larger UAVs like the air force Global Hawk. These will be operated by pilots for formerly served on manned aircraft.

All three services are also faced with the growing capabilities of flight control software. The new flight control systems require much less help from human operators. Some UAVs already spend some, or all, of their flight time being operated by software, without any human intervention. Even the sensor operators are getting replaced by software, which is getting more adept at picking out what's on the ground. A British firm is already testing flight control software than enables a pilot, or weapons officer in the back seat, to control several semi-autonomous UAVs flying alongside the manned aircraft. This is the future of UAVs.


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