MQ-1B Predator UAV drone from U.S. Air Force. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Sabina Johnson

US Air Force Feeling the Level-shift Pain In Drone Program

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We’ve talked about how you can level-shift a job down — making it so that it only requires a lower level of work — can change the playing field and let you compete in what seems like a closed market. The Register, online source of all that is geeky news goodness, recently wrote about the US Air Force’s problems in handling how the Predator has changed the face of military reconnaissance flying but the Air Force can’t make the transition.

The Predator, a drone flown by the US military, is “piloted” remotely, often on a different continent than the plane itself. Many of the drones used in Afghanistan are piloted from a facility outside Las Vegas, Nevada, for example. This makes it easier to keep staff since they don’t have to be rotated out of the theater, and it’s cheaper to have someone at home than it is sent into a foreign country.

The problem is that the US Air Force has insisted that the drones not be equipped with an auto-land ability. The Air Force drones must be piloted by an experienced and qualified pilot of real planes, someone who has stick-time up in the air. Their argument is that a human being is better able to adjust for the situation as it is occurring and can do a better job. Note that pilots are officers in the USAF. Class plays a part.

The Army also flies Predator drones. Since they don’t have a lot of pilots, they looked at this and said, “hey, we can train people to fly these, and make them land themselves.” So they do.

The interesting things is that the Air Force apparently crashes more of their Predators than the Army does. The auto-land function works better than the “real” pilot.

I can think of several reasons why this would be so, including the fact that flying something the size of a Predator is probably very different than flying an F-15.

What it shows you is how by using technology to shift the level of work down, you can transform a competitive space and compete in a market that seemed impenetrable. You do the same thing when you shift the level of work up; for example, when you sell to regional offices rather than local factories.

I’ll close by noting that the Air Force, America’s newest branch of the military, is facing a tidal wave of change in the next decade or two. Computerization has taken over so many of the flight functions in their newer jets that it is reasonable to expect the work level required for all flying to come down. You just won’t need that level of expertise and knowledge. That’s going to go down hard in a culture where the Top Gun is, well, the top gun.

If you are a hidden high potential and working in a closed field, how can you use technology to shift the level of work down and change the field? It isn’t always possible: this level-shift was not possible until recently in aviation. But it usually is more possible than you think.

Image Credit: MQ-1B Predator UAV, a drone flown by the U.S. Air Force. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Sabina Johnson. Public domain military image. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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