RPA Cockpit, Mental Overhaul

Part of the reason Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft operators are so stressed is because their “cockpit” equipment was rushed into service without the benefit of “human factors engineering,” outgoing chief scientist Mica Endsley said Wednesday. The configuration of the RPA operator stations for Predator and Reaper aircraft “were designed by engineers for engineers,” not pilots, Endsley said. Displays are hard to read and awkwardly placed, forcing operators to “hunt” for needed information, she said. She called the operator stations “kluged together” to meet an urgent operational requirement, and this is one of the reasons RPAs suffer “six times the rate of accidents” that manned aircraft do, Endsley noted. USAF is looking at a new station—to be ready in 2017—that will fix some of these problems, but won’t create a virtual-reality bubble around the crew, she said, because that would require more bandwidth than is available. There’s no similar program for the Global Hawk and “it’s needed,” she noted. USAF scientists are also studying ways to deal with the unique mental stresses of RPA crews “deployed in place” who spend their days in tense combat but go home “to watch their kids’ soccer games” after the duty day is over.