There was once a great Far Side cartoon that had ‘hopeful parents’ imagining a newspaper full of Help Wanted ads for skilled video game players. Well, it looks like Gary Larson might have been more prescient than he imagined. The US Air Force has just revealed that, this year, it will train more ‘pilots’ to remotely operate unmanned aircraft than pilots to fly fighters and bombers.

This will come as a no surprise to regular Gizmag readers, who have seen more and more about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) over the last few years. (Confusingly, the military prefers to refer to them as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), which is intended to include ground stations as well.)

Lt. Gen. David Deptula revealed at the briefing on July 23 that high- and medium-altitude UAV overseas combat missions have increased more than 600 percent during the past six years. At present, the Air Force has 35 Predator and Reaper UAVs over Iraq and Afghanistan, each of which is a combat mission that keeps an aircraft aloft 24 hours a day.

That, of course, is what has so enamored the military to UAVs – they permit long missions, over huge areas, without being limited by the needs of human cargo. Instead, there’s always fresh crew available to pursue a mission relentlessly. The Air Force has a thousand personnel flying these missions, and none of them is at risk of anything greater than RSI. At the moment, the Air Force uses one pilot per Predator but, by 2013, they believe each one will be able to fly three or four simultaneously.

The rise of UAVs in modern warfare has been incredibly fast, given that they only made their combat debut in Afghanistan in 2002. That version of the Predator, 26 feet long and capable of about 95 mph, was very quickly superseded by UAVs of increasing stealth, speed, and sheer viciousness.

Since then unmanned aircraft have rapidly developed in sophistication and versatility. We've become familiar with names like ScanEagle, Killer Bee, Sky Warrior and Global Hawk, and we've seen vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAVs like the Hummingbird, Fire Scout and vicious armor-plated Snark. UAVs are now smarter, fly further and mimic the capabilities of piloted craft more than ever before, and there's more on the horizon.

UAVs also started to shrink dramatically and, with the Micro Air Vehicle, stopped bothering to look like traditional aircraft at all. By the time the MQ-9 Reaper – a hunter-killer variant of the Predator with the ability to loiter – was introduced to the Iraq conflict, it had been armed with 500-pound bombs and Hellfire missiles.

The latest version of the Reaper is an even more sophisticated remote-control war machine. Capable of speeds of up to 250 mph and carrying even more weaponry, it can beam video images back to troops on the ground. Using new equipment called Rover (remote operations video enhanced receivers), pilots can see exactly what the UAV sees and, what’s more, issue it commands.

The Air Force, of course, insists that real live pilots will always be part of the mix – it’s impossible for a remote-control vehicle to engage as effectively in air-to-air combat, for example – but acknowledge that the fundamental nature of warfare is changing. All of which is good news for those who spend too much time with a game controller in their hands.

View gallery - 2 images