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In the virtual cockpit: What it takes to fly a drone

A 9th Attack Squadron MQ-9 Reaper pilot, left, and 49th Operations Group MQ-9 sensor operator fly an MQ-9 Reaper training mission from a ground control station on Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.
A 9th Attack Squadron MQ-9 Reaper pilot, left, and 49th Operations Group MQ-9 sensor operator fly an MQ-9 Reaper training mission from a ground control station on Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.Michael Shoemaker / U.S. Air Force

Drone pilots escape the physical demands and dangers of a traditional cockpit. There's no g-force pinning them to their seats, no uncomfortable pressure suit to wear and no panic because the aircraft they are sitting in is spiraling out of control.

Instead of soaking in sensory information through their eyes and ears and fingers, drone pilots spend hours watching their crafts through their computer screens — their only physical link with the craft they fly.

Over the last few years, the military has been taking on drones faster than it can train pilots. The old guard, airmen and women who clocked flight hours in regular aircraft before taking control of a Predator, is being replaced by a generation of cadets with basic flight training and hours and hours of video game time. Drones themselves are evolving into complex automatons, making novel demands on their minders' brains and bodies. Scientists who study how machines and humans work together are only just filling in our understanding of what it really means to be a drone pilot.

A drone operator who has a flying history will tell you that switching gears to remote control takes some getting used to.

In a manned aircraft, "you can see outside, where you can hear the noise of the engine and hear the turbulence … You have all your five senses," Phil Hall, a pilot for NASA's Global Hawk research drone, told NBC News.

Lt. Zachary, a student with the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron, flies an MQ-1 Predator simulator mission Feb. 8. Zachary is part of the 18X career field, which allows officers to become Remotely Piloted Aircraft pilots without attending undergraduate pilot training.
Lt. Zachary, a student with the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron, flies an MQ-1 Predator simulator mission.Lt. Logan Clark / U.S. Air Force

But drone pilots today rely on a computer screen, system status updates and a map, sometimes continents away from the craft they are flying.

"In a manned aircraft if you have a problem you know right away," Hall said, but when there's a drone involved, there's a bit of translation, and there's only so much of the situation you can read.

Some of the hardest lessons to teach new drone pilots? Where to look for information that in a manned craft would be right at their fingertips, says Tom Miller, an ex-Air Force pilot who now flies NASA's Global Hawk drone. For example, in the case of a lost data link, a drone is programmed to return to either a pre-programmed location or its original launch point. When that happens, "A pilot needs to know what the programming is if they need to manage it," so the programming can be changed if needed, Miller said.

Boredom an issue
Drones like the Global Hawks are so sophisticated that they need more minding than flying. In other words, flying a drone doesn't suck up every drop of a pilot's focus every second they are at the controls. This makes boredom a unique but very real problem among pilots, and it cuts into their performance, a study published last year found.

Missy Cummings, an ex-Navy pilot and MIT professor who led the study, explained that "babysitting" a craft while waiting for a target makes it harder for pilots to spring back into action when they're needed. When she tested the subjects' attention through 4-hour simulations, she found that high scorers were distracted: They read a book, checked their phones or left the controls to get a snack.

But training for one drone doesn't mean you're ready to fly another, as drone controls can vary greatly between models. "They're apples and oranges," Hernan Posada, who pilots NASA's Predator named Ikhana, said. Predator drones, among the oldest, are operated with a stick and rudder, while the newer Global Hawk is controlled with a mouse and keyboard. The Predator is less autonomous and needs a lot more manual control, especially during take offs and landings, Posada explained.

"A lot" of unmanned aircraft systems were "built as if a (jet) pilot was going to fly it," which explains the rudder and stick, Raza Waraich who has studied the link between control design and rates of crashes, said. But newer designs are made for those without flight training to fly the craft. "I found a couple of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) that incorporate the PlayStation2 controller," he said, explaining that pilots would use the video game controller to navigate menus.

Which is just as well, since some believe the newest recruits into drone flight school are already wired differently. "They grow up playing Xbox and Nintendo and gaming systems ... they have a different multitasking capability, they collaborate differently with their fellow pilots" and other operators, said Brad Hoagland, a colonel with 23 years in the Air Force, who is now studying drones and drone pilots as a Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Different physical cues
Starting in 2010, the Air Force designated drone piloting as its own career path. Trainees would complete one tough year without going through undergraduate pilot training, motivated in part because the Air Force's targeted need for operators was higher than the rate at which they are graduating.

"We've been building the platform faster than we can fill them with operators," Hoagland said.

There's some evidence that suggests putting a pilot with less flight experience behind the drone controls is a better strategy than the other way around.

"Pilots in an aircraft are used to an entirely different set of physical cues," MIT's Cummings said in an email. A 2004 report that studied drone accidents showed that pilots with real flight experience made more mistakes than operators with no flight experience. That's because "pilots learn to rely on a set of cues they do not have in the control of UAVs so it is not clear that pilots are the best qualified people for control of drones," Cummings said.

But pilots who made the switch seem happy with their decision. Hoagland, citing an internal Air Force study, said 487 fighter and bomber pilots were assigned to a three-year stint on drone duty, and when their time was up, 412 of those mid- to late-career pilots decided to stick with drones. The younger cadets have caught the bug too, he says. When a brood of 244 fresh undergraduates were given a chance to pick any career in the Air Force, 25 percent of them decided to become drone pilots.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.