Warplanes: Sleeping Sickness


April 22,2008: The U.S. Army and Air Force are finding there is a major drawback to the long endurance of UAVs like the Predator. Namely, the human operators get drowsy, and sometimes fall asleep. This is nothing new. For over half a century, keeping radar operators, and observers on long range maritime patrol aircraft has been difficult. Actually, staying aware, or just awake, on guard duty is an ancient problem. But at least the soldier or sailor was out in the fresh air, and had a less numbing routine than someone stuck in a room staring at an electronic display.

Until the last decade or so, the only solution was lots of coffee and supervision. But now, with the widespread use of digital video and cheap, powerful, microcomputers, it's possible to let software take over more and more of the monitoring load. This does not mean sensor operators spend less time staring at a screen, just that they spend less time staring at boring, sleep-inducing stuff.

The U.S. Army has gone a little further, and installed five AURORA target recognition systems in their smaller Shadow UAVs. The 35 pound AURORA units combine cameras and light sensors, with computers and databases, to identify "items of interest" (usually targets of one sort or another), and alert UAV operators to do a visual check. This enables more UAVs to be put in the air, on automatic, without requiring a lot more personnel to control the aircraft and monitor the sensors. The five AURORA Generation IV units are being installed in army Shadow 200 UAVs. These aircraft weigh 327 pounds each and can carry 56 pounds of equipment (usually a day or night vision camera and a transmitter), and can stay in the air for up to six hours. The Predator, in contrast, weighs over five times as much, and can stay in the air for over 20 hours. This is what gives sensor operators, and UAV pilots, the sleepies. Improvements in flight control software has made the job of "flying" a UAV easier. But it's this ease that has also made it more monotonous, and sleep inducing.


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