Many engineering students recently received the same e-mail I did about a research study on improving operators of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. My reaction was one of both curiosity and disappointment that the University is participating in a study designed to increase the effectiveness of military technology.

UAVs are a weapon unlike any other — pilots at home in the U.S. can engage and kill people in real time from their control panels and can view the damage via reconnaissance cameras on board. But the complex psychological effects of such a weapons system are still not fully understood for either their operators, military commanders or the public. These effects need to be fully examined.

One of the most powerful examples of military technology employed against the Taliban in Afghanistan is the relatively small Predator drones flying over ground forces, the latest in a long line of UAVs employed in war. What was once a device to passively provide tactical information to commanders has become a system that can provide death on demand for commanders. These unmanned planes can now deliver guided missiles at suspected enemies and are patrolled for hours on end by pilots in the safety of the U.S. But this new ability to point, click and destroy from half a world away still isn’t fully understood.

Predator drones are also different in that pilots watch their strikes in graphic detail through the drones’ powerful cameras and then return to their normal lives at home. The transition is no longer one of days, weeks, or months. This is not the environment where soldiers share experiences as a group. The stress of a pilot on duty with what is essentially front-line work can have adverse effects on his family and friends who often can’t relate to his experiences or provide solace. There have already been reports of abnormally high stress among Predator pilots, even though they are furthest from the front lines. It is psychologically harmful even though pilots are now away from danger.

The other issues that affect a Predator drone operator are similar to those faced by any military pilot. As sensor equipment, weapons and missions become more advanced, the ever increasing complexity of aerial warfare can lead to a sensory overload of the operators just as in manned aircraft. With Predator drones able to patrol for hours and hours on end, alert monitoring is required at all times and the equipment on a drone can inundate its user with information.

During the war in Iraq, a close air-support aircraft meant to attack enemies threatening friendly ground forces accidentally attacked a British army convoy repeatedly. The conclusions of the investigation were that “cognitive and physical task overload” were part of a number of factors leading to the mistakes in identifying the attacked British vehicles the planes attacked. It is very possible that drone operators that aren’t fully focused could make a mistake that could cause a mission to fail or kill others by accident. Certainly the risks increase further if drone operators are experiencing abnormal levels of stress from their work.

The other factor that very well can be a psychological effect of drone use in wars abroad is a loss of perception about the cost of war. With our pilots physically safe from harm and enemies an order away from being struck down, will war become an easier option? Aerospace companies are already working on the next generation of drone attack craft that can avoid detection entirely. Where is the incentive to not make a strike against a potential enemy from the air when they lack any means of directly returning the favor? And how heavily can we rely on a select number of pilots to operate drones day in and day out, actively attacking anything they’re ordered to?

The questions regarding the psychological effects on Predator pilots are not resolved, and there is certainly a need to better understand what unmanned remote combat means for people. By removing pilots from physical danger, are we adding a psychological burden that could lead to fatal mistakes on the other side of the world? Is the graphic nature of the scenes they witness through a computer screen something that can be shrugged off on the commute home to family and friends? The University should not help further research on weapons technology that we don’t even fully understand yet. The nature of war is already changing with the increased prevalence of such weapons, and with these changes, people need to reflect on both the advantages and the pitfalls of remotely-operated weaponry.

Ben Caleca can be reached at calecab@umich.edu.

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