The U.S. Air Force has a record
number (nearly a hundred) of Predator and Reaper UAVs in service. But so far
this year, seven have been in major accidents (causing more than a million
dollars in damage), and since 2003, another twenty have been hurt bad. Turns
out that two-thirds of those losses are because of human error. Early on, most
of the losses were due to equipment failure, but now the cause is usually the
operator (a pilot retrained to operate a Predator) error. The air force blames
this on the need to train so many new UAV operators quickly. But this is
largely a self-inflicted problem. The air force insists on UAV operators
already being manned aircraft pilots, and allowed most of them to spend only
three years operating UAVs before returning to manned aircraft.
Predator crew consists of an pilot and a sensor operator. Because the Predator
stays in the air for so long, more than one crew is often used for each sortie.
Crew shortages sometimes result in Predators being brought back to base before
their fuel is used up. The air force insists that only existing pilots (of
manned aircraft) be trained as Predator operators. The army uses NCOs trained
specifically for UAV operation. The army has no operator shortage.
World War II, there's been a controversy over whether all pilots (most of whom
are highly trained warriors, not leaders, which is what officers are supposed
to be) must be officers. At the start of World War II, the army air force
(there was no separate air force yet) had enlisted pilots, as did the navy. These men were NCOs ("flying
sergeants") selected for their flying potential and trained to be pilots.
Not leaders of pilots, but professional pilots of fighters, bombers and
whatnot. Officers trained as pilots would also fly, but in addition they would
provide the leadership for the sergeant pilots in the air and on the ground.
As the Army
Air Corps changed into the mighty Army Air Force (with 2.4 million personnel,
and 80,000 aircraft, at its peak), its capable and persuasive commander
(General Hap Arnold), insisted that all pilots be officers. Actually, he wanted
them all to be college graduates as well, until it was pointed out that the
pool of college graduates was too small to provide the 200,000 pilots the Army
Air Force eventually trained. But Arnold forced the issue on only officers
being pilots, and the navy had to go along to remain competitive in recruiting.
force has recently made UAV operator a career field, not a temporary assignment
(as it had been for years). The air force is also beginning to train non-pilot
officers to be UAV operators, and is under pressure (both from within, and
outside, the air force) to allow NCOs to be career UAV operators.
also help on the way from the developers of flight control software. Many UAVs
can fly quite well without any pilot at all. This is basically an adaptation of
"automatic pilot" systems (which are now mostly software and sensors)
that are now capable of doing
practically all the flying for commercial aircraft. So it was no big jump to
install these systems in UAVs and let them go cylon. Well, OK, not completely
robotic, and certainly not self-aware. But Global Hawk UAVs are sent across the
oceans on automatic (including take-offs and landings. Using more of these
systems for Predator and Reaper, eliminates a lot of the human error problems.
This solution has been a trend in aircraft and automobile design for over two
crew and satellite bandwidth shortages mean that only about 29 Predators and
Reapers can be in the air at the same time. But that number will increase, and
the pilot shortage will remain until the air force has enough career UAV