How To Fly a Drone

Just pretend like you’re playing PlayStation.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer’s free daily podcast on iTunes.

On Monday, the Israeli air force shot down a Hezbollah drone over Israeli airspace. According to media reports in Israel, the unmanned craft was preparing to drop explosives. How do you pilot an unmanned drone?

Depending on the drone, it’s either like playing a video game, flying a remote-controlled plane, or doing data entry. Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, are pilotless airplanes used for reconnaissance and surgical attacks. The U.S. Army’s drone of choice, the Raven, is a 3-foot-long, camera-equipped miniplane that’s “launched” when a soldier winds up and throws it. Once in the air, the Raven is controlled by a book-sized console that looks something like a 1980s-era Coleco football game. The screen at the top displays one of the drone’s three video feeds, and the joysticks and buttons at the bottom pilot the craft. Operators can use the sticks to pilot the Raven like a model plane or just preprogram GPS coordinates for the drone to follow. There’s even a button that automatically returns the Raven to its launch site.

The Air Force’s Predator is much larger and more complex than the Raven. Because the Predator is used for both spying and attacks—it’s outfitted with Hellfire missiles as well as video and communications equipment—it needs to be nimble. Predator pilots operate the craft from the ground using a flight stick exactly like one used in an airplane. They also face an array of computer screens streaming data from the Predator’s instruments and video from the drone’s primary camera while chatting with others involved in the mission via a keyboard and headset. A second crew member, the “sensor,” controls the video and communications equipment.

The U.S. military’s top-of-the-line drone is the Air Force’s Global Hawk. The Hawk is a high-altitude, long-endurance spy plane that’s much larger than the tiny Raven or the medium-sized Predator. (Its wingspan is more than 100 feet.) The Global Hawk’s sole job is to spy from high above, and it takes little video-game razzle-dazzle to fly it. The pilots simply enter coordinates on computer keyboards while eyeballing a digital representation of the drone’s airspace.

The Hezbollah drone, an Iranian-built Mirsad-1, is somewhere between a Raven and a Predator in size and less sophisticated than either. The Mirsad-1 cannot communicate around the globe via satellite technology, and it has no internal GPS navigation system. As a result, the Hezbollah drone was probably operated from a high hilltop by one or two people with joysticks and a laptop—with a drone like this one, it’s imperative that the operator never lose direct line of sight.

The Army and the Air Force have very different philosophies in determining who gets to fly drones. The Air Force’s larger, more complex drones are flown only by fully-trained pilots. The Army allows its Raven to be operated by enlisted men who have had a modicum of training. PlayStation-adept grunts have proved to be excellent drone operators—one major told the Army News Service that one top Raven operator is normally a cook.

Bonus Explainer: Where are drone pilots, anyway? Raven operators must be in the field since they have to maintain line of sight with their drones. Pilots of the satellite-ready Global Hawks and Predators can be half a world away from their targets. The Global Hawk program is run out of Beale Air Force Base in California. The Air Force’s Predator missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are controlled by pilots sitting in trailers at Nellis Air Force Base just outside Las Vegas. Even though they’re not in the combat zone, Predator and Global Hawk pilots still wear full flight suits.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Dennis Gormley of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Daryl Davidson of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, and freelance military reporter David Axe. Thanks also to Ehren Gresehover for asking the question.