US drone pilot demand outstrips supply

A Predator drone operated by U.S. Office of Air and Marine (OAM), takes off for a surveillance flight near the Mexican border.(AFP Photo / John Moore)The US Air Force is now facing a shortage in the number of pilots able to operate the military’s quickly expanding drone fleet, according to a new report published by a top Washington, DC, think tank.

According to Air Force Colonel Bradley Hoagland, who contributed to a recent report on the Air Force’s drone program prepared by the Brookings Institution, it is quickly hitting a wall in the number of operators for its 159 Predators, 96 Reapers and 23 Global Hawks.

Although the US military aimed to train 1,120 ‘traditional’ pilots along with 150 specialized drone pilots in 2012, it proved unable to meet the latter, owing to a lack of RPA (or remotely piloted aircraft) volunteers.

A recent report by AFP placed the Air Force’s current drone pilot wing at 1,300, about 8.5 percent of the air corps’ pilots.

Still, an increasing number of uses for America’s drone fleet, including recently-revealed plans by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for drones able to operate from naval vessels, have quickly exceeded the Air Force’s ability to train personnel to train and pilot unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

One of the biggest hurdles faced by the Air Force drone program is a high rate of attrition among its pilots, which is three times higher than that of traditional aircraft pilots.

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