The US Air Force's drone operators are tired and stressed, the result of long shifts controlling armed remotely-piloted aircraft in war zones across the Middle East and Horn of Africa. To help alleviate the strain, the Air Force is developing new control systems. In some ways, the systems more closely match the look and feel of an actual airplane cockpit, while in others it’s the opposite, with functions that deliberately mimic video game controllers.
But improved ergonomics alone can't lift the moral burden on drone operators stationed at a constellation of bases across the American West, for whom life-or-death decisions are all in a day's work. That these personnel are thousands of miles removed from the battlefield doesn’t necessarily diminish the psychic toll, either.
Still, experts said the overall effect of the new drone controls could be happier and healthier drone crews who think more clearly and make better decisions. "In general, the less stress someone is under, the more carefully and thereby ethically they can act in combat," Bradley Strawser, a drone expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, told me.
That could benefit the operators as well as innocent civilians on the ground, especially as President Donald Trump has "shredded" Obama-era safeguards to minimizing civilian casualties while quietly escalating the drone war he inherited.