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Special: New Insights about Drone Pilots and PTSD – how vulnerable are they?

Drone pilots do a difficult job, the impacts of which it has not been possible to assess until now. Click-to-kill? What do we expect from drone pilots? How high is the risk that they will no longer be able to stand the pressure?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects many soldiers around the world. According to research by the U.S. Department of Defense, PTSD appears with similar frequency among drone operators as among other soldiers. A current simulation experiment on this subject is attracting attention.

People who flew a simulated mission showed stronger effects with much higher stress levels than the comparison group which did not participate. Hence operators of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) apparently experience increased mental stress. However, the scientific evidence has not been sufficient so far to clearly prove that drone pilots are susceptible to stress disorders caused by battlefield stress in a similar way to pilots of conventional warplanes or ground troops.

It needs to be established whether the experiences of operators of unmanned aerial vehicles actually meet the medical definition of PTSD, or whether, strictly speaking, what drone pilots experience is not really PTSD. There are various possible strategies for preventing adverse psychological effects, for example better selection and training, mental resilience training, greater group cohesion among potential operators and even psychopharmacological treatment options.

According to a study by the German armed forces (Bundeswehr), around two percent of German Bundeswehr soldiers return from their overseas deployment with a problematic stress disorder. Only one in every two such soldiers subsequently seeks help. The Bundeswehr does comparatively better than other armies. There are various reasons for this, such as better selection criteria for overseas deployments, more extensive mission preparation for soldiers, a shorter deployment duration and less direct exposure to violence. Nevertheless, the risk of soldiers developing another mental disorder later on in life – such as a depressive disorder – is greatly increased.