‘Rise of the Drones’ Is Mostly a PBS Infomercial for the Military Defense Industry

The widely-acclaimed PBS program,NOVA, premiered a documentary on unmanned aerial vehicles or drones. The documentary, “Rise of the Drones,” was produced to explore how the technology is revolutionizing warfare and creating the next generation of cutting-edge surveillance. It was created to provide a glimpse at how the technology has advanced and how innovations might progress in the future.

Before the documentary began, PBS noted the program had received funding from the David H. Koch Foundation for Science. It also received “additional funding” from Lockheed Martin, which on its face looks like a violation of PBS’underwriting guidelines.

Lockheed Martin is one of the nation’s biggest military defense contractors and is developing drones (in secret). The test PBS is supposed to apply to programs is three-fold and as follows:

  • Editorial Control Test: Has the underwriter exercised editorial control? Could it?
  • Perception Test: Might the public perceive that the underwriter has exercised editorial control?
  • Commercialism Test: Might the public conclude the program is on PBSprincipally because it promotes the underwriter’s products, services or other business interests?

Having Lockheed Martin provide any amount of money to a program that touts the amazing potential of innovations in drone technology appears to be a violation of both the “perception” and “commercialism” tests. Is it a violation?

In 2008, Lockheed Martin teamed up with Karem Aircraft Incorporated to develop “Karem Aircraft’s Optimum Speed Tilt-Rotor (OSTR) design. It was “one of three approaches selected by the Department of Defense (DoD) Joint Heavy Lift program office to receive a Concept Design and Analysis extension contract.” Karem Aircraft Incorporated was founded by Abe Karem. He appears in the documentary and, as The Economist has described him, he is the man who “created the robotic plane that transformed the way modern warfare is waged—and continues to pioneer other airborne innovations.” Karem talks about the advancement and benefits of drone technology. This is a clear conflict of interest.

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The documentary opens with a narrator mentioning there are more than 2,300 manned fighter planes. Viewers are told, “Pilots have long been our heroes,” especially pilots who can make quick decisions when things happen very quickly. It then asks whether the world is approaching a time when movies like The Terminator become reality or a “time when machines can fly, think and even kill on their own”?

Much of the first half is like a military defense contracting infomercial. Multiple statistics are presented so viewers can marvel at the capabilities of the technology. Mary “Missy” Cummings, who works with the MIT Humans and Automation Lab (and appeared on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart the same night of the premiere), says drones are more precise when they bomb if a human is not in the cockpit. Scenes unfold where a drone pilot at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico who is being trained demonstrates how a pilot learns to use the technology. Contractors from a company called Rally Point dress up as “insurgents” and enter a mock village where the pilot flies the drone and attempts to get a lock on them so he can execute them. Chad, an RPA pilot, notes the “error distance” is “less than nine feet.” He adds he can put a weapon through a “window-sized opening with ease.”

Up to this point, one could argue that for the most producers are merely presenting how the technology is actually being used by the military and how people are being trained. But, Lt. General David Deptula, who is a retired member of the United States Air Force, describes how during World War II it took months to “assemble intelligence from a variety of sources” and “assimilate that information and then determine what targets” to attack. “Hundreds of aircraft and thousands of bombs” would go out and attack a target with that information developed over months. Drones can “accomplish that in a matter of single digit minutes.”

This misleadingly presents drones as a technology that has solved intelligence gathering problems that have been routine for military or intelligence agencies. A report released by the Columbia Law School last year showed the “reliability and vetting of local informants and foreign cooperating government personnel” is questionable. Informants are reportedly paid “$300-$1000 or more” and there are multiple stories suggesting, “Families and rival groups use locator chips to have their enemies targeted and to settle personal vendettas.” Local informants may offer “sketchy” information, leading to drone operators firing on people without confirming their identity. And intelligence may be obtained from foreign governments or military officials, who may seek to have the US target their “enemies” instead of the individuals or groups the US wants to target.

With drones, the process may be able to happen more quickly, but the intelligence being used to kill people believed to be terrorists or militants is the product of similar intelligence procedures, which helped the administration of President George W. Bush imprison hundreds of innocent people at Guantanamo Bay.

After this part, viewers are exposed to the real truth of why drone use is increasing. Manned aircraft brings the “risk of pilot loss.” The story of Francis Gary