Drone Pilots to Control Four Planes at Once: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

So soon on the heels of this week’s disclosure that seventeen percent of US drone pilots show signs of clinical distress and the debacle of the RQ-170 Sentinel drone being recovered and put on display by Iran, today’s latest announcement on drones reads like a piece from The Onion or Andy Borowitz.  In what appears to be all seriousness, the US is looking into the possibility of single drone operators controlling as many as four drones at one time:

Western militaries are experimenting with having future drone pilots command up to four aircraft at once, adding new potential challenges even as a top-secret U.S. drone’s crash in Iran exposed the risks of flying unmanned aircraft thousands of miles away.

And why would such a foolish move be necessary?  Why, it all comes down to insatiable demand for drone use and a military that wants to cut back on costs:

To save money and make unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) less reliant on massive ground support crews, weapons manufacturers are working with military officials to develop more autonomous control systems and improve networking among planes.

At the moment, it can take hundreds of support staff on the ground to run a single drone for 24 hours, adding cost and complications at a time when budget-cutters are looking for billions of dollars of program cuts.

But new high-tech networking systems and ground stations in development would let a single pilot fly four drones, possibly even from different manufacturers, dramatically reducing the ground staff now needed for each plane.

Early work on such systems has been going on for some time, but heavy demand for more drones and mounting budget pressures are now bringing them closer to operational use.

If the US does institute such a foolish practice, let’s just hope none of the stressed out operators decide to channel their inner Charlie Callas.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
24 replies
  1. William Ockham says:

    Right….

    The expert answer to this problem:

    ..there are simply not enough pilots and technicians to support the rising number of sorties. Long hours and inadequate staffing have pushed the Air Force’s 350-odd drone pilots and their support crews to their limits.

    is “more multitasking”.

    Wow. Is “expert” a gloss for “total idiot”?

  2. dustbunny44 says:

    How long before we contract drone pilots to outfits like Xe (whatever they’re calling themselves this week), and they subcontract a $200,000/year pilot to a sub-minimum wage contractor in, maybe Pakistan?

  3. Strangely Enough says:

    “a military that wants to cut back on costs”

    I kept rereading that sentence trying to figure out what was wrong with it. And then I just laughed…

  4. Jan Rooth says:

    @dustbunny44:

    Or better yet, imagine the hijinx which ensue when the Pakistanis discover we’ve outsourced the piloting of drones over their territory to India.

  5. posaune says:

    Guess those pilots can’t join the PATCO, can they? oh, wait. . . that bit the dust with Ronnie, didn’t it?

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    This is what comes from privatizing governmental functions and making public sector actions subject to the all-consuming motive of profit. Let’s have OB-GYN’s deliver four babies at a time. Let’s have four ships of different configurations and missions under a single captain’s command during a typhoon.

    Piloting does not subject the pilot to the physical stresses of combat maneuvers or take-offs and landings; it does subject them to all the stresses. It has an added one: being dependent on remote-only senses, without the ability to use his or her own vision and other senses live on site.

    Instead of enduring multiple g stresses, the pilot endures their mental cousins, while retaining the same personal and unit liability for SNAFU’s. Multiply that by four, and you have a recipe for failure. A nice narrow (perhaps) six sigma curve flattens out, substantially increasing the probability of catastrophic failure. And we all know how fast combat tactics are being routinely applied in domestic law enforcement.

    Since the the motive to add these additional duties is profit, the cost of dead people is nil, but the cost of a lost drone is in the millions, what will be the decision-making processes of these young pilots, who have very little time in the air?

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @bmaz: Much lower fuel costs, but higher testosterone. I’m not afraid of the guy who knows how to hit and take a hit; I’m scared to death of the guy who thinks it’s all a video game.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    There’s also the basic problem of distraction, as in “How many communists are in the State Department?” rather than “Are there any communists in the State Dept. and do they make policy or empty waste bins?” That is, discussing how many drones an armchair pilot “flies” distracts from the piloting and their real world missions, which often end in very real death, destruction, dislocation and make more enemies than they euphemistically take out [kill].

  9. Arbusto says:

    Aside from our Governments love of 24/7/365 war, I wonder if non-outsourced military pilots must continue to be Officers and Gentlepeople, or will TPTB allow flying non-coms and Warrant Officers?

  10. bmaz says:

    @earlofhuntingdon: I absolutely agree with that. Having the machine connected to your seat and the control stick between your legs, feeling the power of that which you are piloting and that which you are firing put a far greater gravity and sense of what you are really doing. It should be that way.

  11. Jim White says:

    @bmaz: Pretty much. But there is an interesting point in the story about stress on the drone pilots. Unlike bomber pilots who drop their load and scurry back to base, the drone pilots continue to fly the drone around the target site to assess damage. It is in looking “directly” at the corpses of incorrectly targeted civilians that these pilots face their biggest problems.

  12. jo6pac says:

    What that’s great F*&^%()* news, forget blackwater renamed. This needs to be outsourced to the lowest bidder anywhere in the world. It’s a global market after all. Power to the people, well the 1% of them anyway. Who says corp. Amerika and dod are different, I love it. We are doomed

  13. posaune says:

    @Jim White: Good point. My dad was a B-17 navigator (91HB,324thS Bassingbourne), who was one of the first trained on the Norden bombsight. Following his first ETO tour (25 missions), he stayed for a 2nd tour and trained on post-drop reconnaissance. He would never, I mean NEVER, talk about Dresden for the rest of his life.

  14. lefty665 says:

    @joanneleon:
    “Well geez, maybe the could make robots to fly the drones.”

    Exactly, “Drone Pilots”. It seems so obvious now that you’ve said it. Looks like the USAF is still fixated on “liveware” pilots. So 20th century.

    Stepping back another layer of logical operators from doing things directly is mostly what distinguishes generations of software and automation.

    From stick to fly by wire to joystick to we’ve got an app for that, “Guernica ’12”.

  15. Bob Schacht says:

    Maybe one of the things they have in mind is that, like flying an airplane or even a car, most of the time the operator is performing simple tasks requiring little attention. The problem, of course, is to anticipate dangers and take corrective action before anything serious develops.

    I would not like to have drone pilots manage four drones any more than I’d like to be on a passenger airline that was one of four planes managed by a single pilot from a remote location.

    Like someone once said, life in the military was like long periods of boring inaction punctuated by short periods of intense life or death action.

    However, multiple drones flown by one pilot might work if the drones are ONLY on recon that does not require interaction to achieve mission objectives.

    Bob in AZ

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