Occasionally, reality does live up to the hype.

In mid-July, after a rollout campaign that included a well-publicised speech by Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the US Air Force presented the final official version of its unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) flight plan to the public. The report, which lays out the air force’s vision for unmanned systems until mid-century, envisions a massive expansion of robotic aerial vehicle assets.

“We must move away from the notion of UASs as a separate, minor air force capability,” said Col. Eric Mathewson, who headed the group that produced the report. “In order for UASs to be institutionalised they must be integrated into US Air Force programmes, plans, processes and culture.”

But to paraphrase an old Hollywood joke, planning is easy – it’s execution that’s hard. Last year’s bottleneck in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) production, for example, suggests that the integration called for by Col. Mathewson will not happen painlessly.

“The USAF envisions a massive expansion of robotic aerial vehicle assets.”

Human capital: new rules for new tools?

After the bottleneck eased, attention shifted to the manpower side of the equation, as the USAF covered a UAV operator shortfall by shifting veteran pilots from front-line cockpits to rear-based UAV consoles. In response, Gen. Stephen Lorenz, head of Air Education and Training Command, stated in August 2009 that this would be the first year in which his organisation will train more ground-based UAV operators than in-cockpit ‘fighter jockeys’ and bomber pilots.

But what qualities make a good UAV operator? And how similar to, or different from, traditional pilots do remote UAV operators have to be?

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One caveat is appropriate up front: the skill sets of pilots (aviators who actually fly the aircraft) are not necessarily the same as those Nasa calls ‘mission specialists’ (the crew members that operate the various systems that the aircraft carries). As avionics, weapons and other systems have grown in capability and complexity, mission specialists have come to outnumber pilots. Nevertheless, some qualities may be common to all good aviators, whether divided up along functional lines (pilots / specialists) or locational lines (pilots / operators).

In any event, the issue of pilot / operator talent commonality decomposes into three parts.

1. What qualities are important for traditional pilots but not UAV operators?

In contrast to their surface-bound warrior colleagues, pilots are presumably better able to perform while travelling very fast in midair, which in evolutionary terms is an alien environment for humans. Consequently, the distinguishing attributes of pilots are primarily physical and emotional. Physiologically, for example, pilots need good vision and the ability to withstand g-forces. Emotionally, they need to make decisions quickly and manage fear and stress, which are amplified by the fact that aircraft, unlike ships or land vehicles, have to move fast or crash – there is no off switch in mid air.

2. What qualities are equally important for both pilots and operators?

In contrast to the physical and emotional attributes, the cognitive talents of good aircraft drivers ought to be the same whether they are the air or on the ground. All aircraft, whether manned or not, still operate in the real world and are thus subject to gravity and other natural physical laws that are universal. Therefore, flight management and mission execution for manned and unmanned aircraft require the same knowledge.

“In 2009, the USAF will train more ground-based UAV operators than in-cockpit ‘fighter jockeys’ and bomber pilots.”

Aeronautical engineering, for example, will be no more or less useful for the ground operator than for the airborne pilot. In both cases, the drivers are neither building nor testing the aircraft but rather flying it, just as a Formula 1 driver can win races without being the best automotive engineer on the track. Even spatial awareness is cognitively similar: managing a UAV’s orientation in flight is not much different from a pilot flying by instrument on a cloudy night.

The ‘driving’ tasks are converging because over the past four decades, automated systems have done more and more of the actual work, just as computer programmes have progressed from low-level compiling to high-level artificial intelligence.

Ever since the F-16 debuted in 1976, combat aircraft have been ‘fly-by-wire’. The exponential growth of electronics and sensor technology also means that the mechanics of targeting have become increasingly automated. Air power is so lethal now not because man has become superman but because weapons have become superweapons. But there is nothing shabby about doing the meta-work of controlling the machines that do the actual work.

3. What qualities could be more important for operators than for pilots?

If pilots still have the more demanding job, in practice it’s because UAV capabilities haven’t advanced to the level of manned aircraft – yet. Eventually, however, UAVs will outperform manned aircraft precisely because they don’t have to carry people around. At that point, operators will confront cognitive challenges just as demanding as those facing today’s pilots.

Indeed, remote flying may end up requiring more cognitive skill because operators have no visceral stimuli. In other words, operators can’t fly instinctively but must instead interpret the UAV’s environment through the filter of its own sensors, thus adding a metacognitive overlay to the basic flying job.

Different sorts for different sports

A fairer assessment, however, is that pilots are neither better nor worse than operators, just different, and these differences will arise from the distinctive capabilities of UAVs.

Long loiter times are currently one of the most important features of UAVs but protracted mission timeframes place new demands on operators.

The standard unit of UAV battlefield presence is the orbit, which is a 24-hour combat flight by a single UAV. Orbits over Iraq and Afghanistan have risen from 12 in 2007 to 27 in 2008 and 35 to date in 2009; the official goal for 2011 is 50 orbits. Because human fatigue limitations require at least two shifts to execute an orbit, the USAF needs to increase the operators for its high-tier fleet (the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk) from 350 to 800 by 2013.

UAVs have rotating operator teams even now, but as UAV endurance increases, the US Air Force will need to accelerate its training of operators or find ways for operators to work longer shifts. In either case, the traditional aircrew workload will change: where pilots were sprinters operators will either be relay runners or marathoners.

“How similar to, or different from, traditional pilots do remote UAV operators have to be?”

Simultaneous flying of multiple UAVs will probably become an equally critical feature of future UASs.

Currently, one crew at a single ground control station controls one UAV at a time, but this is a ‘very Neanderthal way of operating’ according to Schwartz, who stated that flying ‘more than one Predator from the same ground station with one crew’ is possible. The US Air Force also wants operators to fly different types of UAVs in the future. Ultimately, operators could fly up to 12 different UAVs simultaneously, according to studies by MIT’s humans and automation lab.

More generally, removing the pilot from the UAV means that mission crew size is completely independent of plane size. Equally significant, more capable electronics packages on UAVs mean that larger crews are needed to process all the data. As larger crews thus become more necessary and more feasible, one pilot flying one plane will seem as quaint as a phonograph, and crews of several operators and specialists controlling flocks of UAVs will become the norm. The iconic pilot as matinee idol will be out; the team player with programming talent and ‘mad gamer skills’ will be in.