Drone pilots suffer high levels of PTSD

drone flying

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is traditionally depicted as a result of coming face-to-face with trauma, and many people associate PTSD with the idea of soldiers on the front line, having flashbacks to their time on the battlefield.

However, Dr. Peter Gray - aviation expert and director of War Studies at the University of Birmingham - gave a talk at the recent Hay Festival in which he discussed issues surrounding PTSD and drone operators. According to him, drone operators can suffer higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder than typical bomber pilots.

Dr Gray began his career as a navigator for the Royal Air Force before completing his PhD at the University of Birmingham in 2010.

"What does a drone pilot look like?” Gray asked. “The image, the perception, is that it's somebody in a portacabin, in an airforce base in the United States, who sees nothing of the enemy, is totally safe, and after an eight or 10-hour shift goes home to his wife and family. Does he still hold that 'warrior' status?

"It's interesting when you talk to some of the people who are doing this kind of thing. It's interesting when you start getting statistics that show that post-traumatic stress disorder is higher in drone operators than it is in many aircrew."

Dr Gray’s talk also questioned the growing concerns about technology’s role in the detached nature of warfare, but was quick to point out to his audience that a lot of everyday activities are automated to some extent, and that this is no different in the world of aviation.

"Every time your holiday jet lands, the chances are that it's using an automatic approach; that the autopilot has done this, this and this," Gray explains.  He adds that drones as we know them are in no way "fully
autonomous", but that they could be in the future.

"Artificial intelligence- how close are we to that? Who knows? I'm certainly not in that game," Gray said. "But that's the level of autonomy that we're talking about, and that's part of the debate that you very rarely hear.

"For the last 130 years, aviation, flight, air power and air warfare have been a catalyst for the development of new technology and industry. In the quest for fully autonomous drones, if that's where the future of warfare is heading, you might be in a position where that request drives the demand for further research into artificial intelligence."