The idea that operators of aerial drones can suffer from PTSD and other forms of psychological stress would seem to be counter intuitive. Drone operators are not, after all, in any physical danger when they deal death from above.
A recent Pentagon study, however, suggested that drone operators suffer from mental health issues in a similar manner as military pilots in active combat. Part of the reason is that Remote Piloted Aircraft (RPA) operators witness the results of their handiwork on their computer screens. Also the report stated that there are factors that are unique to RPA operators.
“–crew members may face several additional challenges, some of which may be unique to telewarfare: lack of deployment rhythm and of combat compartmentalization (i.e., a clear demarcation between combat and personal/family life); fatigue and sleep disturbances secondary to shift work; austere geographic locations of military installations supporting RPA missions; social isolation during work, which could diminish unit cohesion and thereby increase susceptibility to PTSD; and sedentary behavior with prolonged screen time, implicated as psychological challenges in the adult video gaming community.”
PTSD in some form has been around since warfare has existed. In World War I it was called “shell shock” and in World War II “combat fatigue.” According to an article in Defense Medicine Network, soldiers seen to be suffering psychological stress were taken out of the line and treated with the idea of returning him to combat as soon as the stress seemed to have passed under the presumption that the condition would alleviate itself away from combat. Only a few were actually permanently discharged as a psychological casualty.
The fact that drone operators can have PTSD contradicts that idea once posited in the “Star Trek” episode “A Taste of Armageddon” that war can be made “neat and painless” with computers and a lack of direct exposure to its devastation. How to deal with it is another matter.
Frequent rest periods for drone operators and, as the Defense Medicine Network article suggests, proactive psychological counseling (i.e. before symptoms manifest) would seem to be indicated. Io9 reports, however, a rather bizarre idea being kicked around. That idea is to give the drone a Siri-like interface and hence a personality. The notion is to help shunt the responsibility for taking lives to the machine itself and thus alleviating the guilt. One wonders how effective that will be.