Do remote-control war pilots get combat stress?
Do remote-control war pilots get combat stress?
Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 11 2008 7:53 AM

Ghosts in the Machine

Do remote-control war pilots get combat stress?

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My guess is that the difference lies in the remaining factor cited in the story: the "whiplash transition" between the physical world of your family and the virtual world of your faraway drone. Living in the console for a full work shift, with your country's missions, assets, and personnel at stake, is more intense than playing Halo. Walking out of the room and trying to resume your physical life is disorienting. But these factors can't match the stress of physical presence in combat. The point of the drone, after all, is to insulate you.

Lindlaw's reporting doesn't settle the question either way. But he's on the right track. The armed forces should monitor drone operators systematically and track the effects of living in this whiplash world, where you kill on a video screen and then go home to your spouse and kids. Human nature has never been tested in such alternating semi-virtual reality. We may well discover that it combines the worst of all three worlds: the stress of missions, the desensitization of video gaming, and the whiplash of transitioning between physical and synthetic environments.


The wing leaders who supervise drone operations regard mission stress as the main hazard. They worry about sensor operators, who guide the missiles to their targets and are often, as Lindlaw points out, "on their first assignment and just 18 or 19 years old." They fear that the on-screen killing will rattle these kids. Maybe they're right. My fear is that it won't.