Manning Unmanned Systems

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Eyes glaze over when diving deep into Defense Science Board studies, those phonebook-thick reports (today more PDF than pdf) salted through with buzz phrases (potentially unlimited persistent capabilities, bounded autonomous capabilities, high cognitive load) and graphics like this that don’t always seem to make a lot of sense.

But every once in awhile you stumble across a gem:

The Air Force has declared that its most critical staffing problem is manning its unmanned platforms. (italics in original)

It crops up in a new DSB report, The Role of Autonomy in DoD Systems, which studies the military advantages to be had by making assorted military platforms do more of the boring tasks on their own.

The two charts above show how many people it takes to keep a single combat air patrol (CAP) on station over a specific geographic area around the clock (which generally requires three drones in theater, and one back home for training):

— Ground-based pilots and sensor operators account for less than 15% of the troops/civilians/contractors needed to keep the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawks and MQ-1 Predators aloft.

— Exploiters are the folks who sift, with the help of massive computers and databases, through all of the video and other information gathered by the drones, looking for targets and bad guys. It takes 96 people to do that per Global Hawk CAP, and 52 per Predator.

— Maintenance accounts for the biggest share of those keep the Global Hawks and Predators aloft: the Global Hawk CAP requires 108 maintainers to keep a single CAP in place, and the Predator needs 76.

How come so many?

According to the DSB:

One of the reasons for the significant manning requirement for unmanned systems is that they were used in unintended ways…The experience with autonomous systems is that they are often brittle when used in new ways and the traditional response has been to increase staffing to work around limitations. Further, since the development systems rushed to theater were originally designed as remotely operated platforms to demonstrate capability, little consideration was given to identifying and designing cognitive functions that could be delegated to the computer to reduce manpower.

How can such unmanned ystems reduce their manning? Again, the DSB:

— Piloting/sensor operation: Currently, it takes multiple operators to manage the flight and sensor operation functions for both the Predator and Global Hawk systems. While it will be essential to maintain a “human in the loop” to supervise operations and to make critical decisions such as those related to weapons release, the effective use of autonomy technology will enable a single operator to manage multiple vehicles. This goal can be achieved by delegating decisions such as take-off and landing, waypoint navigation and sensor-enabled situational awareness to the computer.

— Exploitation: About a third of the staff required to support Air Force UAVs are devoted to processing sensor data and exploiting them to create useful information. Even with this staffing level, the rapid growth in data volume is making it very difficult to keep up. There are many opportunities to use autonomy capability to increase the capacity of the intelligence analysts assigned to the exploitation function.

— Maintenance: Using autonomy for on-board equipment health and status monitoring should improve reliability and reduce the maintenance staff required to support operations.

The DSB’s bottom line:

There is significant potential for increased use of autonomy to have a dramatic impact on the manning requirements for unmanned systems. Manpower costs are a large part of the DoD budget and the fiscal constraints of the pending budget environment will provide a strong motivation to increase efficiencies and add capability to unmanned systems to free people for more critical purposes.

“Free people”? Think that’s just a little DSB inside joke.