The US Air Force's drone operators are tired and stressed, the result of long shifts controlling armed remotely-piloted aircraft in war zones across the Middle East and Horn of Africa. To help alleviate the strain, the Air Force is developing new control systems. In some ways, the systems more closely match the look and feel of an actual airplane cockpit, while in others it’s the opposite, with functions that deliberately mimic video game controllers.
But improved ergonomics alone can't lift the moral burden on drone operators stationed at a constellation of bases across the American West, for whom life-or-death decisions are all in a day's work. That these personnel are thousands of miles removed from the battlefield doesn’t necessarily diminish the psychic toll, either.
Still, experts said the overall effect of the new drone controls could be happier and healthier drone crews who think more clearly and make better decisions. "In general, the less stress someone is under, the more carefully and thereby ethically they can act in combat," Bradley Strawser, a drone expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, told me.
That could benefit the operators as well as innocent civilians on the ground, especially as President Donald Trump has "shredded" Obama-era safeguards to minimizing civilian casualties while quietly escalating the drone war he inherited.
Since the US military first began flying Predator drones in the mid 1990s, operators have used the same basic control station. California-based General Atomics builds both the stations and the drones, including the larger Reaper model, which beginning this year fully replaced the Predator in the Air Force inventory and likewise uses the same controls. The Air Force is in the process of buying 350 missile- and bomb-armed Reapers for $16 million apiece.
Packed into a shipping container or installed in a building and connected to the drone via satellite, the control stations all look basically the same. Pilots and sensor operators sit side-by-side, each in front of their own keyboard, joystick, and bank of displays.
Early ground control stations featured just four relatively low-resolution screens—two around 12 inches wide, two around 20 inches wide—for each crew member, plus one shared 20-inch center screen. The small screens displayed technical data on the drone and its weapons and sensor, one bigger screen showed a digital map, and the other showed crew members what the drone was "seeing" through its cameras.
Compared to the pilots of manned warplanes, the early generation of drone operators had a narrow and grainy view of the world. That could make it difficult to tell, say, an insurgent or terrorist from civilians in the same village. The UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism counted 430 American drone strikes between June 2004 and June 2018 resulting in as many as 4,026 deaths, including up to 969 innocent bystanders—orders of magnitude greater than figures released by the US military.
This much is clear, though: The difficulty in telling friend from foe weighs heavily on drone crews.
"I was hearing about experiences where people killed and they thought they were making the right decision, and then they found out there was a family in the car," Shira Maguen, a US Veterans Affairs psychologist, told The New York Times.
Fatigue compounded the stress of wartime decision-making. Drone flights can last 12 hours or more. And as the demand for drone missions outpaced the Air Force's ability to train fresh operators, the service required crews to worker longer hours and take fewer days off.
"Some of them have flown in combat for three, four, five years straight," Col. James Cluff, then-commander of the 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force in Nevada, told me in 2015 as the Air Force surged drone strikes on the Islamic State. With dozens of drones and hundreds of crew members, the 432nd Wing is the biggest such unit in the Air Force. The wing is also home of the "drone doctors," a small task force of operational psychologists, physiologists, flight surgeons, and chaplains known as the Human Performance Team, who have top-secret clearance to meet with drone personnel grappling with occupational burnout.
Despite the stress on crews, the Air Force waited years to overhaul its drone controls. "The defense acquisition process is so slow and improved interfaces generally rank really low on the [Defense Department]’s lists of priorities," Missy Cummings, a Duke University roboticist who has developed several drone interfaces for the military, told me.
Now, working closely with General Atomics, the Air Force has begun improving the Reaper's control station. The improved Block 30 station, with more and larger screens, rolled out a few years ago and is quickly becoming the Air Force's standard drone control station. Early this year, Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, which like Creech hosts a large number of drones and attending operators, replaced all its older controls with Block 30 models. The Air Force has described the Block 30s as "more user-friendly."
But the most significant change will come with the Block 50 control station, which features six 24-inch touchscreen displays for each operator. The three topmost screens, arranged side-by-side, display the drone's own camera feed, giving the pilot a view that's more than three times wider than that of older control stations.
Additionally, the main joystick for steering the drone using the Block 50 platform more closely matches the models found in manned fighter jets, though as a backup for extremely long missions, General Atomics added a Playstation-style controller that's easier to hold for hours on end. A drone pilot can switch between controllers, depending on whether realism or endurance poses a greater challenge at the time.
"They’ve made the controls and displays more advanced technologically as well as ergonomically better and along with some other human-factors-engineering angles," Strawser said. "In short, the so-called 'cockpits' look, feel, and function better than they did a few years ago."
In other words, the Block 50 control stations could help to ease the strain on America's drone operators by enhancing views of the world around their aircraft and making long missions more comfortable. The Air Force bought its first Block 50s for $3 million apiece in 2016 and expects to test them starting this year.
"Judicious use of technology to enhance or replace human judgment is a prerequisite," Ronald Arkin, a Georgia Tech robotics expert, told me. That should include "advice and feedback on ongoing decisions," Arkin said.
Cummings similarly stressed the importance of "improved processes to prevent friendly fire or accidental killing of civilians." To that end, Strawser praised the military for requiring commanders and lawyers to "literally be in the room," hovering over drone operators' shoulders as they decide whether to pull the trigger.
But nothing can change the fact that drone operators are combatants fighting real wars that claim real lives. As one member of the 432nd Wing’s medical staff told Motherboard in 2015, "The mental stress of combat is not decreased with distance."
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