A Day in the Life of a Drone Operator

The author explains the psychology of a drone operator in Nevada who spends his nights at home with his family and his days eliminating enemy targets in Iraq.
  • Transcript


Big Think: What’s it like to command a drone in Iraq from the US?

P.W. Singer: These commanders of these drone squadrons described that it’s actually more difficult than commanding a traditional man squadron because of the distancing, but also there’s the challenge of being at war but also being physically at home.  You know, one of them described to me that you would go in, you drive your Toyota Corolla into work, you get into the trailer, and you basically start carrying out a mission, and for 12 hours you’re taking out targets, you’re hitting enemy combatants.  And then, at the end of the day, you leave the trailer and you enter back into America and you get back in your Toyota Corolla and you drive home.  And 20 minutes later, you’re talking to your kid about their homework at the dinner table. 

And the result is that the psychological disconnects have proven very challenging and you actually have higher PTSD rates among the drone pilots than you do among many units that are serving in places like Iraq.  And so, the officers in charge are trying to figure out all sorts of different ways, you know, how did they drive that home, how did they watch out for their men and women who are fighting from afar.  They’re doing things like, for example, they have to wear flight suits, even though they’re not in the plane, they wear the suit as if they are.  All sorts of outside communication is banned while you’re on mission.  You may be sitting 20 miles away from your wife, but no cellphone calls, for example.  And so they’re constantly saying, you know what, you may be physically in Nevada, but we’re in Iraq, keep that in mind and lives are at stake here.