The U.S. Air Force began using its large (Predator first, then Reaper) UAVs in the 1990s. It took 16 years for this growing UAV fleet to achieve a million hours in the air. But it took less than three years to achieve the second million flight hours. This is causing problems, as the air force is finding it easier to obtain new UAVs (and keep them operating) than it is to recruit, train, and retain the operators needed to keep the UAVs in operation.
Currently the air force has about 1,300 operators for nearly 300 large UAVs (about half of them Predators, nearly 40 percent Reapers, and the rest Global Hawks). UAV operators are now about 9 percent of all air force pilots, triple the percentage in 2008. While UAV operators don’t leave the ground, they do spend more time “in the air” each month than crews of manned aircraft. UAV operators each spend about 1,200 hours a year controlling UAVs in the air versus 450 hours for army helicopter pilots and even less for air force pilots in the combat zone.
One major success in solving the operator shortage is to automate more of what the ground crews do. Thus, 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). Unlike the traditional "pilot and crew" arrangement for aircraft, larger UAVs, like the Predator, are operated by a team. Typically a Predator or Reaper 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. Thus the team required to keep one UAV operational for 20 or more hours in the air would consist of over a dozen pilots and sensor operators.
Each Predator squadron might have several UAVs in the air at once and this has led to new software that enables each shift to need only one pilot for up to four airborne Predators. There are also up to eight sensor operators, as it has proven easier to automate piloting than tracking what is on the ground. 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. That is less the case with the larger Reapers, which are considered combat aircraft because of the large range of weapons they can carry (including smart bombs). 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 and eliminating flight restrictions sometimes imposed because of a shortage of relief crews. 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").