‘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 Powers, who was shot down while flying a CIA U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union is presented. His crash is described as a “propaganda field day for the Soviets.” The plane had “miles of film” and so it was easy to see what he was doing. He was imprisoned in Russia for more than two years. This clearly demonstrated “the need for unmanned spy planes.”

Chad tells the audience that “despite being half a world away from the action, it all feels very real.” It is not like a video game at all. “There’s no reset button. There’s no turning it off.” There is the potential to have eyes where a potential attack is going to occur for “hours ahead of time.” After a target is struck, pilots “stick around for another few hours to watch what happens afterwards.” He says pilots “stay focused on the destruction” they’ve just caused with their aircraft.

The viewer is led to believe that, even though the pilots are initially trained on an XBox controller, there is no feeling of desensitization. Pilots being hired off the street are not enlisting and finding this is like playing Call of Duty video games at home.

Nearly halfway through the program, the audience begins to hear some critical views on the development of this technology. Afghanistan is the “only publicly authorized war.” Operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen are part of covert operations. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution says America has “conducted a lot of strikes that would have been problematic if we had used manned systems.” Shuja Nawaz of The Atlantic Council says who the targets were, whether they were actually terminated or if others were killed can often be unknown. The narrator notes there are no “verifiable counts of civilian deaths” but that thirty percent of those killed could be civilians and strikes may be turning people against the US and violate international law.

A clip of CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin interrupting John Brennan when he officially acknowledged the program on April 30, 2012. The program continues to explain that anyone anywhere can be eliminated regardless of national boundaries. Nawaz finds this is still a violation of sovereignty even if there is no person flying the aircraft. Singer acknowledges historically we would have called the “equivalent of an air war campaign” war and treated it like war. Viewers are given a glimpse at the problems drones have with air sensors and how it is sometimes difficult for pilots to see what is going on because viewing targets can be “like looking through a soda straw.” An incident in Afghanistan where civilians were killed because they could not be seen in the vicinity is recounted.

The program shifts to the potential of drones to be used for domestic surveillance. Yiannis Antoniades of BAE Systems (which has done business with Lockheed Martin before) shows how a drone can spy on a small city all at one time. He demonstrates the basic capabilities of ARGUS—technology that has been known to exist for over a year. The camera has a resolution of 1.8 billion pixels, the world’s highest resolution. A screen shows color boxes over moving objects that can be used to track persons of interest. People waving their arms, walking around and the kind of clothes people are wearing can be visibly seen. Something as small as six inches on the ground can be seen.

It is possible to shoot one million terabytes of video a day or five thousand hours of footage. One can go back to see what happened four days, two hours and four minutes ago if necessary. As Cummings says, society is becoming “increasingly electronic” where “our movements are going to be tracked” because every video can be archived.

A portion of the program then highlights how Iran was able to hijack a drone or capture a drone after it malfunctioned. Lt. Gen. Deptula says there was a problem with the aircraft and “it landed in an area it shouldn’t have landed in and that’s about all I’m going to say.” Why it went down, the narrator notes, is classified. But, Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week adds control can be lost for basic reasons; for example, the picture can freeze. There’s a degree of vulnerability with remotely piloted aircraft that typically can be overcome by having a human in the cockpit. And then, the documentary concludes with a presentation of how engineers are developing autonomous drones.


The secrecy in the documentary does not help demystify fears of how the technology might be used. The BAE systems engineer informs viewers he has been granted “permission from the government to show the basic capabilities” of drone surveillance technology being developed. The sensors that are being used are covered in what appears to be blue tarps. The engineer states he is not allowed to expose the pieces that make up the sensors. They are “classified.” Whether ARGUS has been deployed in the field is “classified” as well.

This is technology that will be used domestically and Americans deserve to know all of the technology’s capabilities. Government should not be able to conceal what it can do and force the public to trust them that they are not engaging in operations that violate the privacy of Americans.

More significantly, it hints at but fails to fully get into the ethical responsibility scientists or engineers have to be concerned with how the technology could  be used for authoritarian purposes. Karem says he never intended for his drones to kill people. Vijay Kumar of GRASP Lab suggests he is only for drones being used for “humanitarian purposes,” like to enable communications between firefighters when responding to an emergency. Kumar adds there will always be people who are going to use it in ways the designer never intended the technology to be used.

One of the most obvious examples is Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity equation, which helped facilitate the development of the atomic bomb. According to Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, he wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt urging him to authorize a US atomic research program. He later regretted this action and told chemist Linus Pauling, “I made one great mistake in my life—when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that the atom bombs be made.” When President Harry S. Truman was about to proceed with development of the hydrogen bomb, Einstein went on Eleanor Roosevelt’s television show and warned, “If these efforts should prove successful, radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere and, hence, annihilation of all life on earth will have been brought within the range of what is technically possible.”

Drones are not capable of the kind of destruction of atomic bombs, but that is not the point. Unmanned aircrafts make it possible for the US to engage in permanent war. The technology’s fabled precision leads one to believe the only targets being hit are all enemies of the United States. Civilians being killed are collateral damage and they do not matter because they should not have been associated with or in the vicinity of “militants” affiliated with al Qaeda. But the “militants” are rarely firing at US forces or equipment when they are targeted. It does not occur in battle. The targeted killing operation locates the target like police might locate a target for arrest and detention. The targets are subjected to lethal force and assassinated because they are supposedly too dangerous to capture, detain and put on trial.

In terms of surveillance, it is clear the systems developed can engage in wholesale surveillance of entire populations. It is not highlighted in the documentary, but biometrics and facial recognition technology could be attached to drones to gather information on multiple people at a distance in public without giving them or asking them for their consent. This could happen on a continual basis. Though people have typically entered public knowing when they were under surveillance because they could spot the camera being used to monitor them, they would not be able to tell because the drone spying on them could be tens of thousands of feet high in the sky. How the law protects against warrantless droning unknown or believed to not afford Americans any protection yet that is mostly ignored (though Sen. Rand Paul does make an appearance and talk about legislation he supports to protect Americans’ right to privacy).

The radical redefinition of due process, privacy in public space and what is permissible outside of declared war is not fully addressed by scientists or engineers. It would have been valuable to hear how they are morally grappling with the possibility of the technology being used for wars of aggression or to transform societies into totalitarian states. It would have been valuable to hear what safeguards or laws they might like to see so that it would be harder for powerful individuals to use these for purposes that were inhumane or repressive. However, the producers do not explore the dystopian possibilities.

Awesome innovations in technology in the recent decade are presented for viewers as marvelous. The question of whether scientists and engineers should keep advancing technology and allowa one-hundred-car freight train hurtling down the tracks at eighty miles an hour to keep on chugging is never considered. The human cost of the technology is pushed to the margins. The effect is the documentary functions more like propaganda than a documentary that rightfully provokes exploration of critical issues posed by drones.

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