Morale: Feel Me, Hear Me, Smell Me

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December 22, 2011: For several years now the U.S. Air Force has noted that its UAV operators (those who fly the aircraft and operate the sensors) are increasingly suffering fatigue and showing signs of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). But these personnel never go into harm's way and operate out of office-like environments in an airbase in the United States. But what they do is view violence, or the potential for it, for hours on end and often pull the trigger (to launch a missile or drop a smart bomb). So far the air force has identified about percent of the UAV (Global Hawk, Reaper, and Predator) operators who are suffering symptoms of PTSD. A third of these airmen have not sought treatment. Some operators burn out and cannot function on the job any more. This is most common with those who work over 50 hours a week. In this group the burnout rate is over 30 percent. The reason for this is the fact that operating a UAV actually requires a lot more concentration than flying an aircraft you are in. The UAV operator cannot "feel", "hear", or "smell" his aircraft, but must instead constantly scan his computer screens (which show video and instrument data). This, it turns out, is much more stressful. Before this, no one realized how critical "feel", "hear", and "smell" were to piloting an aircraft.

For the sensor operators stress comes from constantly observing videos of the ground, looking for something specific. It's known that personnel monitoring security video have a hard time maintaining effective concentration for more than 20 minutes. For more than a decade, software has been available to monitor the video. Since the video is digital, this form of monitoring has always been seen as a solution to the monotony problem. But this software is not quite up to replacing a person viewing the images. Close, but not quite there yet.

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 these large UAVs are often in the air for 24 hours at a time, often flying over an active battlefield and looking very hard for specific stuff, the "crew" has to be changed every 4-6 hours to avoid fatigue. Moreover, each Predator/Reaper unit might have several UAVs in the air at once. The pilots also operate the weapons if any are carried. But most of the time Predators fly missions without using missiles. Global Hawk carries no weapons. Reaper is considered a combat aircraft as it goes out armed most of the time.

But despite the air force initiative in developing better UAV flight control software they have not gotten a lot of it into service, at least for their most heavily used UAVs, the Predators and Reapers. The air force has a lot of civilian flight control software to draw on. Commercial airliners have had software that can land an aircraft without pilot intervention (and this is used to take the workload off pilots during difficult landings). The air force's largest UAV, the Global Hawk, is highly automated (it can take off, cross an ocean, and land, all by itself.) The navy is borrowing heavily from civilian flight control software to create a combat UAV that can land on an aircraft carrier by itself and fly semi-autonomously in cooperation with manned aircraft. But in the air force there is continued resistance to making too many of their UAVs autonomous and put pilots out of work. But right now there is a shortage of UAV operators because so many pilots refuse to switch to a career as a UAV operator.

Two years ago, the U.S. Air Force created a career field for UAV operators. This will eventually include operators who are not, as is the case now, pilots of manned aircraft. In a surprise move the air force also decided to give these non-pilot UAV operators flight pay ($840 a month). Flight pay is like combat pay and given in recognition of the stress and danger of operating combat aircraft. But in this case it's mainly an economic incentive to get the best qualified candidates to staff the new UAV operator force.

The sensor operators, who work with the UAV "pilots" as part of a team did not get flight pay right away, but after the unhappy sensor operators were heard from they did. All members of the UAV crew will get wings, similar, but not identical, to those worn by the crews of manned aircraft. Pilots of manned aircraft were not happy with this decision but have backed off on their criticism as word gets around about what a grind UAV operation is. Pilots still prefer to be in the aircraft they are operating. But pilots also realize that UAVs are the future and manned combat aircraft are on the way out.

 


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