Jefferson Morley writes: So you want to be a drone pilot? Have a seat in the operator’s control station that guides the remotely piloted aircraft. You could be sitting in a trailer on Creech Air Force Base in Nevada or doing your duty at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. From this perch, you can see a battle space on the other side of the world. You are virtually on the front lines of war.
One of the screens in front of you has a live full-motion video feed from the aircraft (perhaps showing the home of an anti-American sheik and his family in Pakistan or Afghanistan). A second screen has mission data like the altitude of the drone and its fuel level. A third screen displays multilayered menus of more data. You can steer the drone with the joystick in your right hand; the pedals beneath your feet control its rudder. But if you want to turn on the autopilot, it will require 22 keystrokes on one of several available keyboards.
Your partner, the “sensor operator” seated next to you, controls the camera. He or she can zoom in on the face of the man you are hunting. Is this target a danger to the United States? The keyboard in front of you enables you to communicate with a JAG (or a CIA lawyer) to make sure that your target qualifies under the Rules of Engagement. You have audio contact with the Combat Air Command Center in Qatar, which must authorize the firing of missiles. When it does, you push the button on the joystick and send the missile on its way. Then, an explosion. If you want, the sensor operator can train the camera on the wreckage.
If you don’t feel comfortable in this seat, you’re not alone. When the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board studied the drone operator control stations last year, it found no less than 17 flaws in the “poorly designed” system, including “poor ergonomics” and ill-conceived input systems, like the autopilot activation. While much of the drone war remains shrouded in official secrecy, the Air Force’s ongoing campaign to improve the ground control station provides a window into America’s newest way of war.