Pando

The military still can't turn its techno-enthusiasm into a functional drone program

By Nathaniel Mott , written on May 18, 2015

From The News Desk

Drones can't fly themselves, and the military is having a hard time convincing pilots to control the aerial surveillance-slash-death machines, according to a recent investigation conducted by the US Government Accountability Office.

The lack of drone pilots has been blamed on several factors. The Daily Beast reported in January that a lack of advancement opportunities, declining interest in becoming a drone pilot, and other issues have all affected this program.

Now the GAO has revealed that other issues -- such as pilots being tasked with lawn maintenance instead of flying missions, and a shortage in pilot training -- have undermined the military's efforts to solve the drone program's problems.

And some of the military's efforts to address these problems, like waiving the requirements needed to become a drone pilot instructor, could have unexpected consequences in the future. As the Washington Post explains in its report:

Those prerequisites include things like a soldier's rank, a baseline number of flight hours with a drone, recent flight experience and a demonstrated level of readiness.

The Army began waiving some of these requirements in 2013 so that its instructor school could graduate more trainers. Between then and 2015, about 40 percent of students got some kind of waiver, the GAO said. That practice ended in February, but the result is that some of the military's newest drone pilots are being trained by people who themselves lack sufficient training. The drone program is one of the prime examples of the military's increasing reliance on new technology. Other programs might be more interesting (real-life Iron Man suits, anyone?) but drones are much more relevant at this point in time.

These problems make it hard to believe the military's new techno-fetishism is going to get off to a promising start. Yet that hasn't stopped the Department of Defense from becoming more infatuated with new tech, as I wrote in December:

The Department of Defense wants Silicon Valley to help it prepare for the future of warfare.

A blog post on the Department’s website says it wants outside thinkers to help 'enable the protection of U.S. interests and freedom of movement, and deter future aggression into the 2025 timeframe' by offering suggestions on 'space, undersea technologies, affordable protective systems against precision-guided munitions threats, air dominance and strike capability possibilities, ecologically and biologically inspired ideas and human-computer interaction.' Maybe the department should have made other requests of Silicon Valley: Namely, developing autonomous lawn mowers that can handle yardwork so drone pilots can, you know, focus on flight training instead of manual labor.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]