top of page

Sanjeev and Robotwallah (short story): Teleoperating war machines is hard

Recommendation: Read this, then read about how it captures what real drone pilots are going through

Sanjeev and Robotwallah, the short story by Ian McDonald in the We Robots anthology, almost broke my heart. It’s the story of an Indian boy who adores a group of military drone pilots, who are barely more than boys themselves. The group of pilots, sporting anime-inspired uniforms and boy-band swagger, teleoperate ground and aerial robots through virtual reality rigs in order to suppress a civil war that no one seems to understand. And then one day, the war is over…

The realism of the pilots’ experiences and how it mirrors what real drone pilots go through is what really tugged at my heart. I have served on science boards for the Department of Defense. In the late 1990s we could see that unmanned aerial vehicles like Predators were going to be the way of the future. The Air Force was not wild about them, having a culture that glorified the jet pilots who were out front assuming all the risks. Pilots who stayed back at base, relatively safe and warm, just weren’t Real pilots. The drone pilots wore flight suits but went into a trailer, earning mocking comments about did they need a parachute to get out of the trailer and were they prepared for the air conditioning to depressurize. It was so uncool to be a drone pilot.

Then 9/11 happened; the US began operations in Afghanistan and the CIA weaponized drones, and suddenly the action wasn’t in fighter jets, it was in drones. Instead of mocking drone pilots, officers at the Air Force Academy starting asking to be trained as drone pilots. The Army saw small drones as a way of having immediate air reconnaissance without having to ask the Air Force. (I once witnessed a rather pointed exchanged between two generals. One, an Army general, was trying to explain to us scientists that the Army needed drones because whenever you called for air support from the Air Force, it was usually too late. The Air Force general icily replied that it took a lot of coordination not to get shot down by the very group that had requested them.) But now drones, and drone pilots, were sexy and fighter pilots were so old school.

Various DoD officials chortled that war was now like Ender’s Game, a video game writ large. Many of us with human factors backgrounds began to warn that this was not necessarily a good thing. If you recall Ender’s Game, everyone barely escaped being convicted of war crimes and Ender personally didn’t cope so well with having killed at a distance. And sure enough, videos soon started circulating of drone pilots shooting their targets (aka people) lots of times, firing way more than was necessary, and generally acting like they were in a Grand Theft Auto session. One of my colleagues, an expert in human factors, shook her head sadly and said something like “You know, this killing is going to eventually catch up with these pilots and when it hits them, it’s going to be bad. You might want to think about setting up counseling because they are going to need it.” “No, it’s just like video games, they’ll be fine,” was the response. “No, it’s not. And one day, when they realize that, that they’ve been shooting up real people, not animations, and whooping and high fiving while they did it, they’re going to have psychological problems.” And sure enough, reports began to surface that drone pilots were encountering a version of PTSD.

Then we began to see other reports that the drone pilots were working long shifts (12 hours on) despite studies that indicated that teleoperation was much more fatiguing than regular operations. And we heard about how isolated the drone pilots were. That the long hours interfered with their family life, but their isolated work and long hours offered them little opportunities for camaraderie. Neither fish nor fowl, drone pilots occupied a new niche in the soldier ecology and were stressed out whether they knew it or not- just like the robot operators in Sanjeev and Robotwallah.

And I felt bad, and still do, because our country had set these pilots up for failure. And Ian McDonald captured this. All the glory, and the ruinous effects, of being a drone pilot, plus the cultural twists of a civil war in India. Read the story, then read the latest about drone pilots in the 2016 NY Times article The Wounds of the Drone Warrior, and weep for our supposed victories.

- Robin

bottom of page