Fighting from afar: predator ground stations need redesign, say pilots.

Author:Jean, Grace V.
Position:Drones in Combat
 
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CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. -- The mobilization here shows no signs of slowing down. The demands for aerial surveillance in Iraq and Afghanistan grow by the day, and that means more Predators and pilots are needed.

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To ease the crunch, the Air Force is rushing the production of new Predator unmanned aircraft and is expediting the training of hundreds of aviators here at the home of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing--established last year as the Air Force's first unit dedicated solely to unmanned aerial systems.

But aviators are finding that their abilities to support the war are hindered by the outdated technology in their ground "cockpits" and the user-unfriendly equipment they employ to control the UAVs.

Many of these pilots, who have earned their wings inside the cockpits of fighter jets, say the control station's design is archaic and limits their flying and combat capabilities.

"It's '90s technology and it's not ergonomically designed," says Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the 1,100-airmen wing. "A new cockpit would be a great and wonderful thing."

Whoever designed the control stations for Predators was definitely not a combat pilot, aviators say.

To shoot a Hellfire missile from a Predator, says Chambliss, "I have to make 17-plus different mouse clicks in pull-down menus. In my aviator thought-process, that doesn't make much sense. I would much rather have a cockpit where I reach over here, arm, select and shoot."

Pilots say they could be executing many more missions if they had workstations that resembled the cockpit of their fighter jets. "In my F-16, I get rid of the weapon with one switch," says Chambliss.

Another design shortcoming in the control station is that the buttons for deploying weapons and shutting off the airplane's engine are adjacent to one another. That creates a safety hazard, pilots say.

Chambliss' ideal ground control station would put the pilot and the sensor operator in cockpits that looked similar to that of an F-16 or an F-15. "I want to be able to fly and employ this airplane just like I fly and employ a manned asset," he says. Predator pilots simply want to operate the aircraft safely with better visibility, of the battle zone.

A modern cockpit-like design might even help persuade the Federal Aviation Administration to lift its ban on unmanned aircraft in national civilian airspace. One of the FAA requirements is that pilots have at least 120 degrees field of...

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