Drone pilots, up close and personal

“Large numbers of existing drone pilots are dropping out with diagnoses of stress, depression, anxiety, and PTSD”.

Dr Lindsay Clark is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow as part of the ‘New Technologies and Ethics of War’ project in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, UNSW Canberra. Her interest is drones and the people who fly them.

Dr Clark’s doctoral research project, at the University of Birmingham (UK), explored the role of gender in the development of the novel military technologies of armed drones. She is now looking at the lives of drone crews and their families.

Her current research asks how women are being militarised in drone warfare, or mobilised to help support drone warfare and explores the implications for women in relationships with drone crews.

“There is lots of research to suggest that having a partner in the military is peculiarly stressful; there are higher instances of domestic violence, higher instances of mental health problems, higher risks of alcoholism,” Dr Clark says. “Some of that is in the spouse that’s in the military and some of that is in the spouse that’s not in the military.”

She says that although drone crews aren’t physically in danger in the same way that traditional troops are, the fact that they’re flipping between war and home in a shift work pattern comes with its own set of stresses

Dr Clark’s research has found that the idea that drone pilots are ‘divorced from the heat of battle’ is incorrect. There is evidence that many are experiencing high levels of distress and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

At the same time, they are often accused of having a‘play-station mentality’ despite the realities of watching the results of lethal attacks, or watching over troops on the ground, searching for IEDs, wrestling with communication problems to try to save the lives of buddies.

However, Dr Clark feels that many of the attempts to ‘humanise’ drone pilots are misguided or at least limited in their vision.

She takes issue with many of the reports of drone pilots’ lives, claiming that most journalistic reports paint a picture of families with “warrior dad, stay-at-home mom and 2.4 children”.

Dr Clark says the singularity of the narrative is troubling, with descriptions of pilots kissing their wives, hugging their kids and going to war, then picking up milk on the way home.

“Where are the women going home to their husbands? Going home to their (female/male/trans) partners?” Dr Clark asks. “The men going home to their husbands? To their housemates? Their parents? Where are the single parents? Where are the childless individuals?”

Dr Clark warns that this emphasis shuts down the options for what is required to “make” a drone pilot human. “In order to claim humanity (and to dispel the idea that you are a robotic callous civilian killer), it appears, you must be married (to the opposite sex), and a parent,” she says.

Along with Dr Clark, other members of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at UNSW Canberra are examining some of the ethical issues which might be raised by new technologies which are currently being developed, or have recently been adopted, for military use.