29% of Drone Pilots Are Burned Out, Exhausted

Air Force points to three reasons for the stress
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 25, 2011 9:17 AM CST
29% of Drone Pilots Are Burned Out, Exhausted
In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, Capt. Richard Koll, left, and Airman 1st Class Mike Eulo perform function checks after launching an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle Aug. 7, 2007.   (AP Photo/US Air Force - Master Sgt. Steve Horton)

Drones may be unmanned, but they're not pilot-less, and many of those pilots are having a pretty rough time. NPR reports on a new Pentagon study, commissioned by the Air Force, that looks at the mental toll that fighting "remote-controlled war" takes, and the stats are somewhat disheartening. The Air Force employs about 1,100 drone pilots, who are operating as many as 60 drones around the globe. Some 29% of those surveyed reported that they were exhausted and burned out; 17% are believed to be "clinically distressed," which means their stress has reached a level so high it impacts them professionally and personally.

The Air Force has three theories about what's causing so much stress:

  • The battlefield: These pilots spend their days operating in a war zone—but they don't live in one. Constantly flipping between life at home and life in battle, separated by a few miles' drive, is a new experience for our military.
  • Supply and demand: Drones are now an integral part of our operations abroad, and there just aren't enough bodies to keep the drones aloft 24/7. That translates into unusually long shifts.
  • Monotony: Drone pilots can spend weeks staring at one plot of land. And when they have to kill someone they've been observing for that long, it can be traumatic, and even induce PTSD.
As one concession, the Air Force plans to cap the number of airborne drones at 57 for the next 12 months, during which it will work on mitigating some of the issues. (More drones stories.)

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