US Air Force Needs Another 600 Humans To Fly Its Robot Planes

US Needs Another 600 Humans to Fly Its Robot Planes (Wired, June 14, 2012):

The Pentagon doesn’t have nearly enough people to operate its growing fleet of flying robots. Right now, the US Air Force is short nearly 600 drone pilots and sensor operators. And that’s before the military carries out its plans to more than double its armada of remotely operated Reaper aircraft by 2015.

Air Force leaders have been complaining for months that their “number one manning problem … is manning our unmanned platforms.” But the generals’ gripe was seen mostly as a worry about finding intelligence analysts to watch the countless hours of surveillance video that the spy drones produce. Turns out, the Air Force also doesn’t have enough people to operate the  aircrafts — or to turn and focus their cameras.

That’s according to an April 2012 report on the future of drones (.pdf) by Pentagon chief weapons-buyer Frank Kendall, which lays out the challenges facing the military as it increases unmanned systems operations. The report, obtained by Inside Defense, was requested by Congress in last year’s Pentagon budget because the growing fleet of drones “raises a number of questions concerning the military services’ ability to support these inventories in the near- and long-term.”

As of Dec. 16, 2011, the Air Force had 1,358 pilots and 949 sensor operators, a shortfall of 338 and 245 respectively. And with more Reapers coming — their number will go from the current 96 to 199 in 2015 — they will need around 1,400 more pilots and sensor operators combined.

To meet this demand, the Air Force will hire new outside instructors as well as jump-start two new educational initiatives. The first will create new military undergraduate courses, which will complement existing training programs for pilots and sensor operators. The second is to increase the capacity of its training crews.

Apart from personnel problems, the military has space issues, as well. Sure, the military uses at least 64 different bases to house its drone fleet. It’s still not enough airspace. According to the report, the airspace required already exceeds what’s available and the problem will only get worse as more bases are built around the country. In fact, many of the new bases won’t have access to the airspace necessary, both civilian and military, unless the Federal Aviation Administration changes its rules about flying drones domestically.

As of today, drones in the United States can only fly within certain areas designed for military use. To fly a drone outside of those spaces, the Pentagon needs the permission of the FAA, a special permit awarded through a process that “requires a significant amount of time and resources,” something that “does not provide the level of airspace access necessary to accomplish the wide range of DoD UAS missions at current and projected tempos,” according to Kendal’s report.

The only solution, Kendall insists, is to give drones the same freedom regular planes enjoy. Drones will not achieve their full potential “unless they go where manned aircraft go with the same freedom of navigation, responsiveness, and flexibility,” the report states. If the Pentagon can’t find more room in the sky for its drones, the Air Force capabilities “will stagnate or degrade.”

The third challenge is infrastructure. The military will need new buildings to house and operate its drones. According to Kendall’s report, the Department of Defense has already spent or plans on spending a grand total of almost $1.4 billion to build new hangars, operating bases and other facilities to support its increasing drone operations. Presumably, that includes bunks for the extra pilots and sensor operators they’ll need to control the supposedly “unmanned” aircraft.

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