Nova’s “Rise of the Drones” Looks At The Troubling World Of Unmanned Flight

The PBS show probes the little-understood world of drone technology and operations to discuss the controversy of remote warfare, increased surveillance, and a future of autonomous aerial robots.

They’re both wondrous and frightening.


Drones–aerial robots that carry visual sensors, navigation systems, and weapons–are saving the lives of American military personnel by enabling them to spy on and kill enemies from thousands of miles away. They’re giving law enforcement a leg up on catching criminals, and could eventually assist search and rescue missions through extreme surveillance methods.

But they’re mired in controversy. Drones–also known as remotely piloted aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)–have accidentally killed innocent civilians and opened the door for increased invasion of privacy. A possible future of completely autonomous spying, surveying, and killing machines feeds into our darkest sci-fi nightmares.

In Rise of the Drones, NOVA addresses many of those ethical and political challenges through an explanation of the technology. Filmmakers of the hourlong documentary–which airs Jan. 23 on PBS–gained unprecedented access to drone scientists, engineers, and pilots to explain how the drones work, how they’re piloted, their history, and future.


“There were two main challenges in making this film,” producer/director Peter Yost told us. “The first was getting access–with cameras. A few years ago, it might not have been as challenging. But in recent months, it’s gotten harder. I think we had highly unusual access, if not unprecedented, to the training and inside working of these systems.

“The second, more difficult challenge was figuring out how to craft a story around a subject that is so sprawling,” he adds. “This technology affects everything from our most local privacy issues to the most far-off international ethical questions. We ultimately solved it by basing the film around the technology, showing people what these things are and how they work, which very few news reports have done up until now. We often hear debates about how can and should they be used, without necessarily fully understanding what they are.”

The film is punctuated with assessments from several drone experts–Abraham Karem, the aeronautics pioneer known as the “father of the Predator”; retired Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula, who played a major role in the military’s transition to remotely piloted aircraft; University of Pennsylvania scientist Vijay Kumar, who develops environmentally sensing drones; and Dr. Peter W. Singer, senior fellow and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institute, and author of Wired for War. Along with Yost, they elaborated upon some of the film’s topics at a PBS press conference last week.

(L-R): NOVA senior executive producer Paula Apsell, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Dave Deptula, robotics professor Vijay Kumar, Karem Aircraft founder Abraham Karem, and producer/director Peter Yost at the PBS press conference. Missing is Brookings Institute’s Peter Singer (via satellite). Photo: Rahoul Ghose/PBS

Collateral Damage

Deptula and Karem suggested that drone operators guided by teams of analysts are more effective in reducing collateral damage than soldiers in the thick of battle.

“Major ballistic missiles are unmanned and don’t put any operator at risk,” said Karem. “We did some of the most destruction from the air with ballistics, without a man being at risk. That doesn’t mean that they are operated without great responsibility, if they were operated by the good guys.”

Decision-making machines are another matter. “Where we’re really going to start to move into some of these issues of ethics beyond the individual operating the system is when we get to the autonomous phase,” said Deptula. “Where you hit a button and say, ‘See you later. Come on back and tell me where you put those 22,000-pound bombs.’ I don’t think we’ll ever get there, because the human piece will prevent a machine from making those kinds of decisions. But we’re not there yet.”


Video game partnerships

The similarities between drone technology and the video game industry are creating interesting partnerships between the two.

“The military is in some ways starting to freeride off of the video game industry, where it used to be the opposite,” said Singer.

Take the controlling mechanisms. “The video game companies have spent so much money in designing ones that are really good user interfaces that are easy to use,” he added. And you’ve got an entire generation of 18-year-olds that intuitively already know how to utilize these kind of video-game-style controllers. The latest Call of Duty video game has an armed tactical quadcopter, and we’re now seeing research into making that vision real. So it’s a strange back-and-forth.”



Like any technology, drones can be used to assist or impede humanity. For example, their picture-taking ability makes them ideal for search and rescue operations.

“Imagine the aftermath of a disaster–the first responders some day will no longer be humans; they’ll be robots,” said Kumar. “So when humans come, they’re not in harm’s way. Today if we had these drones functional, we would not have had the catastrophic chain of events after Fukushima. We would know exactly what’s in those reactor buildings, and we don’t at this point.”

Personal privacy is more ambiguous. “It’s a gamechanger when you start to think about issues of privacy,” said Singer. “When it comes to law enforcement, we’re moving to a period where you’ve got tens of thousands of local police departments that can’t afford aerial surveillance and are going to use small drones. Or they can only afford one or two police helicopters, and now they can get large numbers. That does change the kind of tracking that the police can do. Even if you’re just trying to find [one person], you’re going to pick up footage of a lot of other people.”


Singer added that while journalists might use them toward better reporting, “We’re also seeing paparazzi exploring it. The head of one paparazzi agency said it will ‘strike fear into the heart of any celebrity thinking about having an outdoor birthday party.’ That’s the world we’re going into.”


About the author

Susan Karlin, based in Los Angeles, is a regular contributor to Fast Company, where she covers space science and autonomous vehicles. Karlin has reported for The New York Times, NPR, Air & Space, Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, and Wired, among other outlets, from such locations as the Arctic and Antarctica, Israel/West Bank, and Southeast Asia