Over the past three years, American unmanned aerial vehicles—or drones—have killed hundreds of people, both suspected terrorists and civilians, in Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. During that time, they've proved to be useful for situations where using ground soldier or manned planes is deemed too risky.
Now, drones come in all different shapes and sizes and can be used for a wide variety of tasks, such as surveillance, natural disaster monitoring, search-and-rescue, and border patrol. Government officials and companies have started to see the potential domestic uses for drones, and last year, Congress required the Federal Aviation Administration to devise rules to allow drones to operate in American skies.
PBS's NOVA decided to take a look at the growth in drones, in a special titled, Rise of the Drones, which aired Thursday. U.S. News talked with producer Peter Yost about getting the American military to provide him access to their drone command centers, drone hobbyists, and where the whole trend is going.
The government isn't terribly forthcoming about its drone programs—was making this documentary harder than some of the others you've done?
It was a pain in the ass to make. Telling the military, 'Hey, we want a film about drones' is a tall order these days. But then to say 'We want to bring cameras, we not only want to talk about drones and bring cameras, but we want to get into how they work,' that's strike three in asking for access. It was a lot to ask for and they said no a number of times. We ultimately had to get access signed off on by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It went all the way up to the top.
Did the military request that you make any changes to the film?
It's great because we got this access. But journalistically, it raises questions. We were clear that they were going to have no editorial control, but we did agree they could review a cut of the film before it was finished in case there were any specific national security concerns or blatant points of fact that were incorrect.
Our access, while unusual, was not a blank check. They were all over us when we were there, we had a lot of supervision.
On the merits of the science and technical capabilities, they didn't have complaints. In terms of content, we got some individual comments from people that said, 'Whoa, don't go there.' But we didn't give those comments any more weight than we would given to comments from people outside the military.
Was there ever a point where you thought the documentary wouldn't get made?
We were going to make the film no matter what. NOVA was behind it and wanted to do it. I think that fact probably helped push the military off the fence. They said no for months, but we had drawn up a contingency plan. It would have had similar elements but wouldn't have had the embedded military components.
I think before the government realized it was going to happen, it's easy to try and wait people out and have it go away and not happen. But once they realized it was happening either way, it was in their interest to participate.
So you got to be up close and personal with these things—did they let you fly a drone?
I played with little ones but with the military ones, they don't let you.
Everyone has their preconceived notions of what drones are and what they do—what surprised you most about being near them?
We have a scene in the movie where one of the pilots is showing us around the hangar and picks up the nose of a Predator drone with one hand. It's made of crappy-seeming fiberglass, like a light canoe. It seems largely hollow. Drones feel almost chintzy and light. They cruise at 84 MPH and have small efficient engines, they're not about evasive action, they're just hovering up there. The control systems that go into these things are high tech, but it surprised me how simple they seemed. Being around predators, you're just like "What's the big deal?"
I think that's why dozens and dozens of countries are getting these, and the genie is kind of out of the bottle. You don't have to build redundancies like you would if you had people on board. It's a balance between making them cheap and making them safe. You don't want to be crashing a drone every week, but you can tolerate a larger failure rate.
So most of this documentary and much of the drone debate has focused on their use in war, but they are already flying in the United States. Do you think that flies under the radar?
I liked the story of the first domestic shootdown of a drone. I think it embodies some of the complexities in a nutshell we're going to see coming out in the coming years. It remains to be seen how it's going to play out. There's a Rand Paul quote in there about how in two or three years, there may be tens of thousands of drones. That's an interesting point.
Some people don't think about this much, but there's a military drone industrial complex if you will. When things wind down overseas and we pull armaments back home, these companies are in business to sell drones. And there's a lot of sheriff departments looking to buy them. As things cool off on the war fighting front, a lot of that will shift back here.