Do Drones Get Vertigo, Too?
Up there or down here, it can be a struggle to maintain “situational awareness.”
- By Roger A. Mola
- AirSpaceMag.com, July 14, 2008
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Mark Pestana serves as the remote pilot of NASA’s IKHANA vehicle, a Predator B the agency uses in UAS research. Pestana said that when it comes to sensory cues, UAS pilots are severely hobbled. “Imagine stepping into a cockpit and losing four of your five senses; you’d only have vision.” Control inputs for IKHANA are made by a series of trackball and joystick movements. “There was probably not a pilot in the room when this software was written,” said Pestana.
Nancy Cooke of Arizona State University studied the work style of UAS teams and told the NTSB that the lack of sensory input creates spatial disorientation, which in turn causes most mishaps, particularly while landing. “The visual experience of a UAS pilot is looking at the world through a soda straw,” said Cooke. At best, a UAS pilot sees a 30-degree field of vision.
Glen MacPherson, the U.S. Air Force chief of human factor studies, said that UAS accidents stem from the arcane and exhausting pilot-machine interface. “Fatigue has been expensive,” he said. “Predator crews who are ‘tele-operating’ in Iraq are at least as fatigued as those actually deployed in country.”
Should a UAS pilot become disoriented, Vertigo Inc. may have a solution. Vertigo has built a recovery system for UAVs weighing 20 to 1,600 pounds: a round parachute or steerable parafoil that deploys whenever the vehicle assumes an unusual attitude or encounters high G forces.