Air Force Top Scientist Predicts Better Future for Drone Pilots

By Sandra I. Erwin

Military drone pilots are stressed and overworked for the most part because of crushing schedule and a chronic shortage of trained operators. But there are other reasons, such as their user-unfriendly equipment and poorly designed workspaces.

Air Force researchers and technologists are working to change that, said Mica R. Endsley, the chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force.

Pilots who fly Predator and Reaper remotely piloted aircraft at Air Force bases in the United States “have to go through great lengths to make the systems do what they need to do,” Endsley said.

Their ground controls stations were not designed for the job they are now doing. Many of the current ground-based cockpits are cumbersome, she said, because they lack the “human systems integration” that typically goes into manned aircraft cockpits.

The Air Force is developing a new ground control station that will fix these shortcomings but it will not be ready until 2017. “The timelines are much slower than I would like to see. But we’re operating with extraordinarily limited budgets,” Endsley said May 20 during a meeting with reporters as she wraps up her two-year stint at the Air Force and prepares to return to her job in the private sector.

The Air Force has deployed teams of psychologists, physiologists and chaplains to help drone pilots cope with stress. It also has introduced new cash bonuses to motivate the force. Endsley believes that improvements in remote cockpit designs and other advances in autonomous systems also will help to relieve pilot stress.

Ground stations used today were patched together in a hurry in the months following the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and didn’t go through the traditional development cycle. “So there were no human factors built into them. They are hard to use, and extraordinarily stressful to operate,” she said. They also contribute to crashes. Unmanned aircraft experience a six times higher mishap rate than manned aircraft. “We have an opportunity to improve effectiveness, lower the stress and reduce the accident rate by redesigning ground stations.”

A program now under way will produce new, more ergonomically correct control stations for Predator and Reaper aircraft, but not for the high-altitude Global Hawk surveillance drone, although that fleet also needs them, said Endsley. “We really have to address our unmanned systems operations with technology, looking differently at how we deal with airmen who are deployed in place, disconnected from the war zone. We need to further study what it means to be deployed in place.”

Current stations, for instance, have vertically stacked screens that forces pilots to crane their necks. “They were developed by engineers for engineers, not for pilots.” Operators often have to wade through multiple screens of data to get what they need. “That can be very inefficient,” she said. There are typically multiple communications systems they have to juggle to connect with deployed units overseas, analysts and other parties. “It’s a kluged-together kind of thing to make it work.”

Before she leaves the Air Force to return to her job as CEO of SA Technologies in Arizona, Endsley will release a new study on the future of unmanned technology and how the military intends to exploit it.

“The focus is on autonomy and human system integration,” she said. The report is scheduled to be released in June.

The Air Force has zeroed in on autonomy as one of five “game changing” technologies, along with hypersonic weapons, directed energy weapons, unmanned vehicles and nanotechnology.

Advances in autonomy will not remove the human operator when it comes to key decisions like launching weapons, but it will make the operator’s life easier, said Endsley. The idea is to use autonomy to aid pilots, she added. Unmanned systems used in combat today are flown manually by pilots on the ground, but greater autonomy might help the military recover drones when they lose the satellite communications link. “We want to do new things with unmanned systems, deploy aircraft in dangerous areas. We can potentially use them in swarms, or in combination with manned aircraft.”

Autonomy is one of the technology fields that is advancing rapidly in the private sector and is being pushed aggressively in countries like China. The United States needs to pick up the pace, said Endsley. “We need more rapid prototyping and testing.”

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Science and Engineering Technology

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