While the U.S. Air Force will train more UAV operators this year than fighter and bomber pilots, a former fighter pilot and current Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Missy Cummings doesn’t see much correlation between the two. Speaking at AUVSI’s unmanned systems conference in Washington yesterday, Cummings said that UAV operators should be considered “more like air traffic controllers” than pilots. “Anyone should be able to operate a UAV with minimal training, she said, “the vehicles can fly themselves, what we need are people to manage these vehicles.”
Cummings wasn’t belittling the job that UAV operators do, she was just making the point that while the Air Force has been pretty stringent about who it allows to operate its stable of unmanned aircraft—until recently, only pilots or officers with aviation training were allowed behind the controls—the other services are much less stringent on who assumes the joystick.
The Army, for example, uses a mix of enlisted trainees and private contractors to fly its UAVs, though Col. Greg Gonzales, the Army’s project manager for unmanned aircraft systems said yesterday that while 95 percent of the service’s RQ-7 Shadow UAV’s are operated by military personnel, and the hand-launched RQ-11 Ravens are all military, most RQ-5 Hunters and MQ-1C Warriors are still flown by civilian contractors.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that—unless the contractor was asked to fire a missile at a target, something that a Robotics Ethics panel is due to examine later this afternoon—but Gonzales also said that the Army recently deployed two contractor-operated Shadow platoons to theater to augment the soldiers already there.
The Army is also tightening up its experimentation and training efforts. Tim Owings, the Army's deputy project manager for unmanned aircraft systems said that the service currently has UAV programs running at six facilities around the country, but is working on consolidating them all at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah within the next 12 – 18 months, which should “reduce the integration timeline by about 75 percent.” With Secretary of Defense Gates determined to get more UAV assets into theater in Iraq and especially Afghanistan as soon as possible, and the Navy making noise as leading the unmanned charge, it looks like the Army is consolidating what it has in a hurry.