Drone war psychology

As US military attacks by unmanned drone aircraft intensify, I was interested to find a podcast (mp3) on the psychology of combat drone piloting from Texas Tech University’s Psychology Podcast.

Unfortunately, their podcast series is not well indexed, but from what I can make out, the piece was from 2007 and interviews aviation psychologist Nancy Cooke and ex-fighter pilot and current drone interface designer Missy Cummings.

The discussion is notable for a couple of things. The first is the interesting point that although drones are aircraft, the designers are trying to stop engineers automatically designing control centres that look and work like aircraft cockpits.

Cockpits are designed to do the best job in the space allowed, and, although familiar, control systems for drones can be much better designed if the whole concept is divorced from the cockpit metaphor.

The second is that they don’t mention killing anyone.

I allowed myself a grim smile when Cummings is asked how the drones are used and she replies “search and rescue, for instance, downed hikers in remote areas, border patrols, we can use them to take pictures and that’s what happens a lot in Afghanistan and Iraq – they use predatory UAVs to really monitor a situation”.

The stress of being interviewed obviously caused ‘running an illegal air war in Pakistan’ to slip her mind.

Snarky comments aside, the psychology of killing remotely must play a huge role in how the drones are managed in combat, and it’s not as if the topic has never been broached.

‘On Killing’, a book on combat that analyses the role of psychological distance in kill decisions and their aftermath, is a classic in military psychology.

Nevertheless, the podcast is a brief but interesting interview on the psychology of drone flying and how the wider public feel about unmanned aircraft as they inevitably migrate from military weapons to civilian workhorses.

mp3 of interview on drone piloting psychology.
Link to Texas Tech podcast page.

4 thoughts on “Drone war psychology”

  1. “illegal air war in Pakistan”? WTH?! That’s where Osama Bin Laden is. If anything, it’s the ONLY legal war we’re involved in.

  2. On designing it like a cockpit- it’s the pilots who actually prefer that. Those who pilot drones are nine times out of ten former fighter pilots. They initially don’t like having to “pilot” the drones because it’s not as exciting, so the controls and seats are all modelled after what makes the pilots happy.

    Also, I’ve heard the drone pilots are actually more aware of the consequences of their actions because a fighter pilot drops a bomb and flies away but a drone stays in the area, makes sure the target was killed, and the precise video they can see combined with high altitude flight means they can really take the time to see the damage they’ve done, the bodies in gory detail. Something up until recently most pilots don’t spend a lot of time on.

    On “illegal war”, my cousin is an Army Ranger who served several tours in Afghanistan. He’d talk about how we would never catch Osama because we’d be chasing him in the mountains and he or other terrorist groups would just slip over the border into Pakistan, knowing it was a “no go” for the ground troops. To think of all the people we could have stopped if it wasn’t for some arbitrary border line in the middle of nowhere. I get that Pakistan should have the ability to keep authority within their own borders, but if you actually talk to the troops this is what they will tell you. They just want to get the job done.

    And drones do patrol the border and fly over fire zones, earthquake torn countries, and look for people needing to be rescued. A tool is only a tool and can be used or misused by those whose hands it’s in. I think blaming the aircraft itself or the military or some PR person is a little off target.

  3. “On Killing” is very good, though I think that the conclusions about video games at the end overreach the presented evidence.

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