Drone Wars: Pilots Reveal Debilitating Stress
U.S. Air Force
A crew chief from the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron completes post flight inspections of an RQ-1 Predator on Sept. 15, 2004, at Balad Air Base in Iraq.
A. R. Drone/Parrot
Unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs are becoming more and more common. They're commonly by the military to spy in insurgents and more recently, they're being used by law enforcement to investigate criminal behavior in the United States. But it doesn't take a soldier or a police officer to own and operate a UAV. And research labs around the world are advancing the technology, developing a new, diverse generation of UAVs designed to perch on walls, bust drug dealers, fly into storms, look for nuclear disaster survivors and even be controlled with smartphones. Demanding duties mean these vehicles need to be able to fly nonstop for hours, days, and longer. Forget refueling. UAV development is pushing the limits of solar and hydrogen power. It’s also pushing the Federal Aviation Administration to open airspace to smaller unmanned vehicles. “The fact that they’re finally coming up with small unmanned aircraft system regulations that look reasonable, that’s going to take the lid off an industry that’s been waiting for this to happen for years,” says Kevin Kochersberger, director of the Unmanned Systems Lab at Virginia Tech. He gives these ten UAVs high marks for technological prowess, risk and potential for spin-offs:
Perching UAVs Earlier this year, Stanford University researchers created a model-plane sized unmanned aerial vehicle that can fly directly to a wall and then land vertically on it, superhero style. Miniature spines on its feet allow the vehicle to cling to a surface. The feet, with help from the propeller, can be manipulated so the UAV walks the wall to get a better view. “I am impressed with the engineering on the aircraft and the iterations they went through to get that configuration,” Kochersberger says. “It’s going to lead to new technologies.” He says the UAV has the potential to sense data that would otherwise be unobtainable. According to the Stanford team, the weather-resistant vehicle consumes very little power and can quietly monitor an area for days. No bat signal required. In the same vein, a team at MIT designed a control system that allows a foam glider with a single motor on its tail to land on a perch.
Reaper The U.S. Army’s MQ-9 Reaper isn’t exactly new but, along with the Predator drone, it has come a long way in flying continuous missions. The Reaper is a specialty airplane designed for surveillance and equipped with highly accurate laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, infrared cameras, and electro-optical cameras on stabilized gimbals. It certainly isn’t cheap -- a four-vehicle Reaper system with sensors costs a cool $53.5 million -- but the advantage is that one can be operated entirely from the ground for customs and border protection. “They’re flying 24 hours a day. If you look at the cost of a manned aircraft flying that many hours, it’s cost effective to keep them up,” Kochersberger says. “When you look at the manpower and the risks that are there to the operator, you’re not putting a pilot at risk.”
Modified RMAX Chopper Kochersberger leads a team at Virginia Tech that transformed a 200-pound Yamaha RMAX helicopter so that it could potentially be sent out after a disaster to search for survivors and gather data on the extent of the damage. The federally funded project took Yamaha’s low-cost, remote-controlled crop dusting chopper and equipped it with autopilot and a special box containing a computer, payload radio, and customized circuit boards. “Our helicopter is the only RMAX that’s flying any missions these days,” Kochersberger says. “Two people can easily handle it and set it up. In this case, it’s to get it up after a nuclear disaster and learn about the nature of the accident, and gather data without putting people in harm’s way in a radioactive environment.” He adds that the team is working on a tethered robot.
Fire Scout The U.S. Navy’s pilotless robocopter, Fire Scout, had an adventurous test flight in the spring. Aviation Week reported that while the Fire Scout was completing surveillance sea trials from the USS McInerney, its operators spotted a speedboat suspected of drug smuggling. The Northrop Grumman vehicle is 31 feet long, ten feet tall, and has a 600-pound lift capacity. Fire Scout’s remote operators wrapped up the test flights and decided to go after the speedboat. The chopper watched the boat for three hours and when it linked up with a fishing boat, law enforcement stepped in and seized about 60 kilos of cocaine. In August, however, Navy operators lost control of the robocopter in restricted airspace above Washington, DC. Ultimately they regained control and landed it safely. The Navy blamed the incident on a software anomaly, and resumed unmanned flights in September. Usually human error is the issue, Kochersberger says. “The majority of the accidents are human ground control operator based.”
Zephyr In July, British defense company QinetiQ’s solar-powered Zephyr broke the world record for flying nonstop without refueling. The thin 110-pound carbon fiber UAV stayed airborne for two weeks straight in Arizona. This version is about 50 percent larger than QinetiQ’s original version, and more aerodynamic. Kochersberger gives the Zephyr high marks. “QinetiQ has been at this for years,” he says. “It stores enough during the day to fly all night.” Paper-thin solar arrays cover the wings, providing power to the lithium-sulfur batteries that kept it aloft in the darkness. The defense company expects its record-breaking UAV will be ideal for conducting environmental research, providing remote communications, and monitoring areas during a natural disaster.
University of Colorado and University of Nebr
Tempest When everyone else is running for cover from a violent storm, the Tempest unmanned aerial vehicle is going straight into it. The UAV and its instruments are part of a large-scale scientific research project called VORTEX2 that aims to understand tornadoes. The 10-foot-wide, 20-pound can move at 100 miles per hour, and has sensors to measure air pressure, moisture, wind speed, and temperature. Initially, researchers from the University of Colorado and the University of Nebraska who developed the Tempest were unsure that their UAV would be able to make measurements in a supercell storm, the kind that spews heavy rain, hail, wind, and sometimes a tornado. Yet last May, when the team got the green light from the FAA, they flew the Tempest into a supercell thunderstorm over northwestern Kansas. The UAV flew for 44 minutes, successfully transmitting meteorological data, along with its position and status, wirelessly to a control station and tracker vehicle on the ground. Kochersberger, who has seen the Tempest up close, says it’s a novel use for a UAV. “I’ve talked to their researchers. I like their design philosophy,” he says. “They certainly got closer to bad weather.”
Phantom Eye In July, Boeing unveiled a prototype for its hydrogen-fueled UAV, Phantom Eye. Designed to fly at 65,000 feet for up to four days straight, the vehicle has two 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engines, can carry 450 pounds of payload, and is scheduled to have its maiden flight in early 2011. Kochersberger compares the Phantom Eye with DARPA’s Vulture program to create a five-year battery-powered UAV that can carry more than 1,000 pounds. While Vulture is more ambitious, he says there’s probably a two- or three-year development cycle before it flies. The Phantom Eye is still on the ground, too, but closer to flying. An airplane that will stay up for several days in orbit as a communications hub is novel, Kochersberger says. “It’s a radical design.”
Automatic Supervisory Adaptive Control When several million dollars’ worth of technology is airborne, it also better be able to keep going after getting shot. The aviation technology company Rockwell Collins designed a flight control system that figures out what goes wrong when an airplane sustains catastrophic damage. The automatic system readjusts instantly to safely land the plane. The system was successfully flight tested in 2008 on an unmanned FA-18 subscale model air vehicle sponsored by DARPA. In Aberdeen, Maryland, the test blew more than 60 percent of the plane’s wing off. The system automatically righted the plane, allowing it to land normally. Last summer, Aviation Week reported that the company has a contract to put its system in an operational UAV. Rockwell Collins’ automatic supervisory adaptive control is based on the known flight control laws that govern the aircraft’s characteristics, Kochersberger says. “They developed a nonlinear flight control algorithm. It will sense the aerodynamics and fly in spite of those inefficiencies,” he says. “It’s really fast, too. If the wing comes off, it’s immediately stable again.” The technology has the potential to keep military personnel and civilian passengers safe.
Solar Eagle DARPA’s Solar Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle is like a low-altitude satellite, Kochersberger says. The solar-powered UAV has loftier goals than the company’s hydrogen-powered Phantom Eye. Currently the Solar Eagle is being designed to have a 400-foot span between wings, carry 1,000 pounds of sensors and payloads, and remain at 65,000 feet for five years. Yes, years. The $89 million project aims to begin flight-testing in two years. Kochersberger expects that the Solar Eagle will spin off new tech related to communications. “Temporary wide area communications that are similar to satellites -- that’s a new industry that would spring up from the use of the airplane,” he says.
A. R. Drone Parrot When one thinks of UAVs, a toy isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But that’s exactly what the A.R. Drone by French company Parrot is. The half-pound quadricopter is now on the market and costs around $300. Its Wi-Fi system works with Apple’s platforms so the small chopper can be controlled using an iPhone, iPod Touch, or an iPad, and multiple players on a network can compete against one another with the vehicles. Other smart devices should work with the toy in the future, according to the company. Kochersberger credits associate professor Mary Cummings for creating a similar vehicle in her Humans and Automation Lab at MIT. She and her students designed a one-pound quad-rotor UAV that has sensors and a built-in camera, and can be controlled using an iPhone. “The Parrot toy, you could say it’s a game,” Kochersberger says. “But you could put a radio repeater in there to drive it behind the building and relay radio messages.”
In the final years of his nearly 30-year career in the U.S. Air Force, Slim spent 10 to 12 hours a day in a cool, dark room in the Arizona desert, stationed in front of monitors that beamed back aerial footage from Afghanistan.
Slim's unit operated around the clock, flying Predator drones thousands of miles away over Afghanistan, to monitor -- and sometimes eliminate -- "targets" across the war-ridden country. As a sensor operator for these remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs, it was his job to coordinate the drones' onboard cameras, and, if a missile was released, to laser-guide the weapon to its destination.
These types of missions are part of the military's expanding drone program, which has developed a reputation for carrying out shadowy and highly classified operations -- ones that sometimes blur legal or moral lines. As such, their use in warfare has been steeped in controversy. (How Unmanned Drone Aircraft Work (Infographic))
Critics say firing weapons from behind a computer screen, while safely sitting thousands of miles away, could desensitize pilots to the act of killing. What separates this, they argue, from a battlefield video game?
But war is rarely so simple, and distance does nothing to numb the emotional impact of taking a life, said Slim (who is referred to here by his Air Force call sign in order to protect his identity).
"People think we're sitting here with joysticks playing a video game, but that's simply not true," Slim, who retired from the Air Force in 2011, told LiveScience. "These are real situations and real-life weapons systems. Once you launch a weapon, you can't hit a replay button to bring people back to life."
In video games, players rarely make a human connection with the characters on their screen, but Predator drone operators often monitor their targets for weeks or months before ever firing a weapon, he added.
"While the enemy is the enemy, you still understand that they are a real person," Slim said. "To extinguish a person's life is a very personal thing. While physically we don't experience the five senses when we engage a target -- unlike an infantryman might -- in my experience, the emotional impact on the operator is equal."
Still, the idea that being far away from the front lines could desensitize people to killing is not a new one. Arguably, the first weapon to give humans standoff distance in battle was the bow and arrow, said Missy Cummings, an associate professor of aeronautics and engineering systems at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., and director of the school's Humans and Automation Laboratory.
Cummings, who served as a naval officer from 1988 to 1999 and was one of the Navy's first female fighter pilots, said the argument that killing at a distance could desensitize soldiers has evolved in tandem with advances in war-fighting technology. The issue was similarly discussed when airplanes were introduced into warfare.
"You could make the argument that pilots haven't really been on the front lines since before World War II," Cummings said. "With some of the high-altitude bombing in World War II, pilots became pretty far removed from the actual combat." (Rise of the Drones: Photos of Unmanned Aircraft)
But drone pilots are sometimes thousands of miles away from the battlefield, and their physical distance takes on another dimension, since the entire operation is controlled across a network of computers rather than by soldiers on radios in the field. Yet, Cummings said the only difference is the location of the pilot and the amount of danger he or she may be in.
"Whether you're 5,000 miles away or 5 miles up, there aren't huge differences," Cummings told LiveScience. "When I flew F-18s, you saw everything through cameras and TV screens, just like how drone operators see today. I can't think of anybody now who releases a weapon purely on sight -- you just don't do that anymore, because you have computer systems that do it for you."
The front lines of virtual combat
In fact, Nancy Cooke, a professor of cognitive science and engineering at Arizona State University's College of Technology and Innovation in Mesa, Ariz., argues drone pilots may be more emotionally impacted by killing at a distance because of how closely they have to monitor the situation before, during and after the attack. (After the Battle: 7 Health Problems Facing Veterans)
"The big difference is the level of detail that you can see on the ground," Cooke said. "When you operate a remotely piloted aircraft, even though you're there virtually, you have a lot of information about what's going on, on the ground."
Unlike pilots who physically fly into an area, release a weapon and sometimes never see the aftermath of their mission, drone operators regularly conduct lengthy surveillance following the strikes, exposing themselves to the often-grisly aftermath.
"While fighter pilots have to worry about being shot down, they rarely see the results of their attack," Slim said. "After an engagement, we have to conduct surveillance for quite a long time. Yes, we may only be seeing it, but sometimes, we're seeing it for hours on end, and that is part of the traumatic impact of the mission. It's a definite form of stress on the operator in and of itself."
In order to better understand how to screen pilots and their supporting units for mental health concerns, Wayne Chappelle, chief of aerospace psychology at the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, has conducted research on the potential psychological issues faced by drone operators. Most drone operators, Chappelle found, describe experiencing combat sensations that are remarkably similar to infantrymen on the front lines.
"They experience real and visceral reactions, like elevated heart rate and adrenaline -- similar to what you would experience if you were in real combat, so they have that same heightened level of awareness and vigilance," Chappelle told LiveScience.
And despite conducting sometimes-lethal missions in front of a computer screen, Chappelle said drone operators have not shown any indication that they have become numb to the act of killing.
"(Their) own personal lives aren't at risk, but the reality of what they're doing is really clear to them," he said. "I haven't seen or heard of anybody becoming desensitized, or having a nonemotional reaction, to the deployment of weapons."
But the battlefield -- albeit virtual -- is not the only place where drone operators experience tension.
In 2011, Chappelle co-authored a study that identified areas of high stress within the Air Force's drone program. More than 1,400 members of the Air Force participated in the study, including 600 noncombatant airmen and 864 operators of Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk (unarmed) drones. (See Photos of NASA's Global Hawk Drones)
The individuals were asked to rank their level of stress on a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 representing feeling extremely stressed. Chappelle found that 46 percent of Reaper and Predator pilots reported "high operational stress."
From other questionnaires, Chappelle found that 17 percent of Predator or Reaper drone operators, and 25 percent of Global Hawk operators, show signs of what the Air Force terms "clinical distress," which includes depression, anxiety and other symptoms that interfere with job performance or disrupt family life. For comparison, approximately 28 percent of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq are diagnosed with clinical distress, according to the Air Force.
In addition to the actual missions, the study found that some of the biggest factors contributing to stress were the long hours and frequent shift rotations required for drone operations. More than 1,300 drone pilots work for the Air Force, representing approximately 8 percent of all U.S. Air Force pilots, according to a recent report authored by Air Force Colonel Bradley Hoagland.
The Air Force currently supports 61 round-the-clock drone patrols in Afghanistan, Yemen and North Africa, but plans to expand to 65 patrols across the three regions by next year, Hoagland wrote in the report, which was released in August by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Two drone operators remotely fly an MQ-1 Predator aircraft on Oct. 22, 2013.U.S. Air Force
Doing more with less
Conducting patrols 24 hours a day, 365 days a year requires drone operators to work long shifts that sometimes last more than 10 hours at a time. This grueling schedule can take a toll, and Chappelle's 2011 study found that almost a third of active-duty drone operators reported symptoms of burnout.
Slim's unit in Arizona worked eight rotating shifts on a 24-hour period, and he said his team continuously felt pressure to keep up the operational pace in the face of ongoing budget constraints.
"We were doing so much more with so much less," Slim said. "For air crew, you have to have eight hours of uninterrupted sleep prior to starting a shift, but that's about the only regulation I know. This is a 24/7 job, and until we lower the operation tempo, we're always going to have this problem."
Chappelle said the Air Force implemented changes following his 2011 study, and took cues from other high-stress jobs that rely on shift work, such as police officers and hospital doctors. Some of the changes included adjusting schedules so that individuals could maintain proper circadian rhythms, which Slim said was something he struggled with as a sensor operator.
"Among RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] pilots, we found that a few years ago, their distress rates were around 28 percent," Chappelle said. "After folks had made some changes in the operational process to help them deal with fatigue, we were able to bring those stress rates down to 10 percent. And 10 percent is consistent with the general population."
But, Slim said he still witnessed high rates of burnout, which even caused some officers to leave the unit.
"The Air Force doesn't like to talk about it, but I have seen quite a bit of burnout and turnover," Slim said. "In Arizona, we went through almost a complete turnover in personnel since the unit started in 2006."
Combat stress and PTSD
Furthermore, the stress of working long hours occasionally carries over into drone operators' personal lives. Part of the problem is a lack of separation between work and home, Cooke explained.
"In traditional warfare, it's always been said that the social support you get from your unit is like a family," Cooke said. "In the drone world, it's a different way of doing warfare. Every day you're switching back and forth -- you might be in a battle during the day, and then you go home to your family at night."
Researchers are unsure how this dynamic might affect drone operators in the long term, but Slim said balancing family life with the stress of his job caused tension in his household.
"The need to decompress is tremendous, but the problem is you can't talk about your work, what you have seen, or what you have done, because of security," Slim said. "Pretty soon, spouses don't understand why, and the friction really begins. In many ways, I wanted to tell my wife everything, but knew that I couldn't, so we mainly focused on how her day went. Needless to say, I didn't get a chance to decompress very much, and that led to a lot of pent-up stress."
Another area that will require more research is whether, and how, drone operators are affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is characterized by nightmares, intrusive thoughts or avoidance of people or places. (The 10 Spookiest Sleep Disorders)
Based on the Air Force's health screenings, less than 4 percent of drone operators are at high risk of developing PTSD, Chappelle said. Roughly 12 to 14 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are at risk of developing PTSD, he added.
Still, studying PTSD in drone operators has been challenging, because a lot is still unknown about how traumatic stress affects regular troops, Cummings said.
"There's a debate about what PTSD looks like for drone pilots," she said. "One of the issues is we don't really understand how much PTSD is happening in regular pilots. We can't even make assessments about whether drones cause more or less PTSD, because we don't have a basis for comparison."
And with the military looking to expand drone operations, it may be premature to disregard the potential impact of PTSD.
"This is going to be an increasingly prevalent way of doing warfare, and there's an attitude among military people that because you're not in harm's way, you're not going to have stress-related problems," Cooke said. "PTSD is a big problem, and I think it may actually be intensified [with drone warfare]. We're trying to get these numbers and understand these details now, because it's been my feeling for a while that this could blindside us."
This article originally appeared on LiveScience.com. More from LiveScience.com:
Supersonic! The 10 Fastest Military Airplanes
Flying Saucers to Mind Control: 7 Declassified Military & CIA Secrets
9 Totally Cool Uses for Drones
Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.