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Study: Air Force Drone Operators Overworked & Under 'High Operational Stress


"There's just not enough people."

It may sound like a video game lover's dream to fly a U.S. Air Force drone, but drone operators deal with life and death on the battlefield every day -- and it comes with a cost.

The New York Times reports that 840 operators of Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk drones were surveyed among other Air Force members and nearly half of the drone operators, based on their responses, were considered under "high operational stressed." The Times reports that what exactly this stress means isn't defined, but it includes those reporting their stress levels at eight or above on a scale from one to 10.

The Times goes on to state that a significant number Global Hawk operators, more specifically, are under what is considered "clinical distress," which is defined as "anxiety, depression or stress severe enough to affect an operator’s job performance or family life."

Watch CBS News' report on the study:

USA Today writes that the cause of these stress levels is long hours, limited staff and often monotonous tasks that still requires extreme attentiveness:

"There's just not enough people," says Wayne Chappelle, an Air Force psychologist who helped conduct a six-month study of drone operators from 2010 to 2011. "You have to constantly sustain a high level of vigilance, both visual and auditory information, and that would be really tough to do when there's a lot of monotony."


About a third of drone pilots, camera operators and mission coordinators work 50 to 60 hours per week or more, data show. Many change shifts every 30 days. Burnout in this group was found among one in three, the research shows.

If you're wondering if the recent drone capture by Iran and crash at Seychelles are related to this burnout, officials say no (via USA Today):

Lt. Gen. Larry James, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said that there has been pilot error in the program but that he did not think any of those cases were tied to emotional burnout.

The study was conducted over six months and the Times reports that those involved with drone operation were broken into groups according to their involvement -- those who control of the drone remotely, those operating camera sensors and those who communicate drone information to troops on the ground. The Times also points out the that Global Hawk drones are armed while Reaper and Predator drones are not.

Over the weekend, the last of U.S. troops made their way out of Iraq. In this video, a drone overhead records the exodus of trucks:

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