Rise of the Drones
Meet a new breed of flying robots, from tiny swarming vehicles to giant unmanned planes. Airing January 23, 2013 at 9 pm on PBS Aired January 23, 2013 on PBS
(Program not available for streaming.) Drones. These unmanned flying robots–some as large as jumbo jets, others as small as birds–do things straight out of science fiction. Much of what it takes to get these robotic airplanes to fly, sense, and kill has remained secret. But now, with rare access to drone engineers and those who fly them for the U.S. military, NOVA reveals the amazing technologies that make drones so powerful as we see how a remotely-piloted drone strike looks and feels from inside the command center. From cameras that can capture every detail of an entire city at a glance to swarming robots that can make decisions on their own to giant air frames that can stay aloft for days on end, drones are changing our relationship to war, surveillance, and each other. And it's just the beginning. Discover the cutting edge technologies that are propelling us toward a new chapter in aviation history as NOVA gets ready for "Rise of the Drones."
"Rise of the Drones" is produced by WGBH, which maintains complete editorial control over all episodes of NOVA. Lockheed Martin was a minor funder of the NOVA series at the time this program was originally broadcast. Lockheed Martin produces the RQ-170 Sentinel drone technology mentioned in the program.
Rise of the Drones
PBS Airdate: January 23, 2013
NARRATOR: Drones: these aerial robots are replacing manned planes; they're revolutionizing warfare by allowing us to see and kill from half a world away, and they're making science fiction a reality.
Now, with unprecedented access to drone scientists, engineers and pilots,…
NARRATOR: …NOVA reveals the technologies that make drones so powerful and the breakthroughs that are leading us into the future.
Will drones soon replace even the most sophisticated manned planes and become a part of our everyday lives?
COREY BRIXEN (Hobbyist): It started out as a toy for my dogs to chase.
RAND PAUL (United States Senator, Kentucky): The worry is that we will have 30,000 drones crisscrossing the sky, accumulating all this information.
NARRATOR: They generate opposition, both overseas and at home.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: I speak out on behalf of the rule of law.
NARRATOR: Now, enter a new chapter in aviation history, as NOVA takes you inside the Rise of the Drones.
CHAD (Last Name Withheld for Security, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Pilot, Captain, United States Air Force): Three, two, one.
NARRATOR: This is the ultimate melding of man and machine.
The U.S. has more than 2,300 manned fighter planes, and pilots like Matt McDonough have long been our heroes.
MATT MCDONOUGH (F-16 Pilot, Major, United States Air Force Air National Guard): The best fighter pilots that I've seen are the ones that can make a quick decision when things are happening very quickly.
NARRATOR: But a revolution is underway, as manned planes are replaced by drones. Are we approaching a time when movies like the The Terminator become our reality…
EDWARD FURLONG (As John Connor, The Terminator 3): Oh, god, it's the machines. They are starting to take over.
NARRATOR: …a time when machines fly, think and even kill, on their own?
Drones are aerial robots that carry visual sensors, navigation systems,…
Sound up: Target acquired…
NARRATOR: …and, sometimes, even weapons. They come in all shapes and sizes and go by a variety of names.
DAVID A. DEPTULA (Lieutenant General, United States Air Force, Retired): The United States Air Force uses the term "remotely piloted aircraft." They're also known as "unmanned aerial vehicles," or, as the media likes to call them, "drones."
NARRATOR: Already, the Pentagon relies on a family of more than 10,000 drones, usually to spy, but sometimes to kill.
Small enough to fit in a soldier's backpack, the three-foot-long Raven is the most widely used spy drone in the world. The stealthy sentinel provided crucial intelligence in the raid to kill bin Laden. The killer Predator has flown thousands of missions since 2001, and the giant Global Hawk, can stay aloft and spy for up to 35 hours.
The military uses drones to support troops on the ground; the C.I.A. maintains a covert drone program to find and target individuals. The government claims drones have helped to eliminate 70 percent of Al Qaeda's top leadership.
They have been so effective, the air force predicts nearly a third of its attack and fighter planes will be drones, within a decade.
MARY "MISSY" CUMMINGS (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Humans and Automation Lab): Planes can fly longer, they can pull more Gs, they can be more precise when they bomb, if a human is not in the cockpit.
NARRATOR: We're entering a new era, when the supremacy of even the most advanced planes is being challenged, as engineers take the pilot out of the cockpit.
Holloman Air Force Base, in southern New Mexico, is the largest Air Force training base for operators of remotely piloted aircraft.
CHAD: My name is Chad, and I am a Captain of the United States Air Force. For security reasons we've been asked to cover our last names to prevent us from potentially becoming a target, of any kind.
NARRATOR: Captain Chad has flown remotely piloted aircraft in combat for three years and now teaches pilots to fly the world's most famous killer drone. It's known as the MQ-1, or, more commonly, the Predator. The Predator has changed warfare, but it's just a hint of what's to come.
DAVID DEPTULA: Where we are, in terms of unmanned aerial vehicles, is about the same place we were with biplanes right after World War One. We are at the very, very early stages of realizing what the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles are.
NARRATOR: Unlike complex fighter planes that are engineered for speed and agility, the Predator is built for endurance, so it needs to be light and efficient.
CHAD: It's the weight of a pickup truck or so, about 2,000 lbs. And it's balanced pretty evenly on the wheels. With one hand here, I can lift it up and set it back down.
NARRATOR: The propeller-driven Predator cruises at only 84 miles per hour and its four-cylinder engine burns about 300 times less fuel than a fighter jet.
CHAD: I can't say exactly how long it can stay up, but it is possible to stay up for over 24 hours.
NARRATOR: A typical fighter plane can only fly for about two hours without re-fueling; and short, angled wings keep it fast and maneuverable, but the Predator hovers five miles up, often in uncontested airspace, and its long wings maximize lift.
CHAD: As you can see, it's got some flex to it.
NARRATOR: With no pilot to protect, a remotely piloted aircraft is much lighter and simpler than a manned plane. On a fighter, the pilot's support equipment and ejection system alone weigh as much as a Predator, which, in place of a cockpit, has a satellite control system.
CHAD: It's essentially the brains of the aircraft that gives us the ability to communicate, to control, to keep a link with the aircraft and navigate it.
NARRATOR: The Predator's sensor ball carries daylight and infrared cameras.
CHAD: We can easily make out people from five to six miles away.
NARRATOR: The sensor ball also guides the Predator's two Hellfire missiles.
CHAD: From right here, we fire the laser, and the laser spot hits the ground. And once we fire the missile, this is the seeker, so this seeker will find that laser spot on the ground and travel to that spot, giving us a very precise capability of employing weapons.
NARRATOR: When conducting missions, remote pilots work out of small trailers on the ground. They control the Predator by satellite. This link is what makes it possible to take the human out of the cockpit and fly from virtually anywhere on the planet.
CHAD: It's tight, about the size of a normal shipping container. A shift can be anywhere from two to three hours up to eight or more hours, depending on the situation.
NARRATOR: From trailers like this, pilots of the Predator, and its larger cousin, the Reaper, have killed thousands of individuals since 2001.
In this clip from Iraq, a Predator pilot sees two insurgents firing mortars towards a coalition airbase. He tracks them and finally shoots.
NARRATOR: The pilot's role is to support troops on the ground and go after threats, while trying to minimize civilian casualties.
PILOT: We've got a new altimeter for you.
NARRATOR: With such high stakes, pilots, like Chad, need ongoing training. Today, he'll be flying the Reaper in an exercise 50 miles away, in the New Mexico desert.
BUHLER (Last Name Withheld for Security): All right, Greg. You're going to be my H.V.I. I have shadow one; station is going to be watching you.
NARRATOR: A group of former soldiers, working for a company called Rally Point, will run an exercise in which Chad will hunt down insurgents in a mock village.
BUHLER: We'll strike you there, and once you die, stay there. Drive.
NARRATOR: Two will play insurgents, and one will be a soldier on the ground, communicating with Chad.
CHAD: Have to take off now, so we are going to push the throttle up, and there; we're up in the air.
NARRATOR: The training mission offers a rare glimpse into the mechanics of how the U.S. uses drones to support troops and prosecute its war on terror. The goal is to make it as realistic as possible, so pilots can avoid mistakes when in battle.
BUHLER: They should be checking in here, probably in the next 20 minutes or so.
It's going to be an MQ-9, a Reaper. If they're at 25,000 feet, which they generally work, we're not going to be able to see them at all.
NARRATOR: It takes about half an hour to reach the mock village. Drones like the Reaper, can fly on their own, using autopilot and pre-set G.P.S. locations, but the Air Force still keeps human hands on the controls at all times.
PETER SINGER (Brookings Institution): People have this concept of either "It's a manned plane, and the pilot's doing everything," or, "It's an unmanned plane, and it's something out of the Terminator movies." The reality is it's in the middle, right now, for both the manned and the unmanned planes. Our mind tries to put it in terms of robot or human, but the reality is a mix.
NARRATOR: As Chad pilots the Reaper, his sensor operator, Jay, controls the cameras and lasers. On the ground, the fake insurgents enter the village, as the Reaper hovers miles above.
BUHLER: Bones 34, Rally 20, say status.
CHAD: Rally point, Bones 34. We have eyes on the target.
NARRATOR: Chad gets direction from the soldier, whose handheld receiver and computer allow him to see what Chad sees. Chad's call sign is "Bones;" the soldier goes by "Rally."
CHAD: Rally, from Bones, we have two packs moving around inside the northwest corner of the compound.
BUHLER: Bones 34, from Rally 20, continue to shadow.
NARRATOR: The soldier directs Chad and Jay to follow an H.V.I., or high value individual, dressed in black.
CHAD: Rally, from Bones 34, looks like the one individual wearing black is now getting on the motorcycle, departing the group.
NARRATOR: Depending on the situation, the decision to kill comes from an intelligence officer, who could be anywhere, a battle commander on the ground, or sometimes, the pilot.
BUHLER: Bones 34, from Rally 20, looks like that our personnel is stopping.
CHAD: Bones 34, that's what we've got up here.
BUHLER: Would like to go ahead and prosecute. Nine line, bravo one.
CHAD: Copy, master arm.
NARRATOR: The sensor operator targets, using the laser.
CHAD: This will be a run against the target, under our crosshairs, 10 seconds release.
Sensor, are you ready?
CHAD: Three, two, one rifle. Bones 34, weapons away. Twenty five seconds, time of flight.
NARRATOR: The Predator uses laser-guided Hellfire missiles.
DAVID DEPTULA: The weapons that can be used operate with an error distance of less than nine feet. You can put a weapon through a window-sized opening with ease.
CHAD: Five, four, three, two, one, splash.
Rally, Bones 34, we have a splash. Stand by for B.D.A.
BUHLER: Bones, Rally, looks like a good splash.
CHAD: Copy. Laser's off and master arm is now safe.
NARRATOR: The efficiency of having a single craft able to find, follow and eliminate a target like this, in real time, represents a revolution in warfare.
DAVID DEPTULA: Let's go back to the middle of the last century. During World War Two, it took on the order of months to assemble intelligence from a variety of different sources, whether it be airborne or on the ground, to assimilate that information and then determine what targets might be hit. Then it took hundreds of aircraft and literally thousands of bombs to go out and attack a target, using that information that had been developed over a period of months. Today, with the capabilities all wrapped up into one vehicle, the Predators and the Reapers, in particular, you can accomplish that "find, fix, finish" cycle in a matter of single-digit minutes.
NARRATOR: Before the Predator, the military had to design separate aircraft for intelligence-gathering and attack. Reconnaissance was key; and after World War Two, engineers built ultra-sophisticated spy planes. They went faster and higher than ever before, to make sure the pilots and the information they gathered, didn't fall into enemy hands.
TONY BEVACQUA (Pilot, Lieutenant Colonel, United States Air Force (Retired): The SR-71 was triple-sonic, in other words, over Mach three. Max recorded altitude was 85,200-some feet. And there's several of us that have gone higher than that.
NARRATOR: Pilot Tony Bevacqua is one of a select group of men to fly the SR-71, a titanium spy plane, built during the height of the Cold War, that could take photos of the ground with 12-inch resolution from 90,000 feet. Literally faster than a rifle bullet, even missiles were too slow to catch it.
TONY BEVACQUA: I was the first person in the SR-71 to get shot at, and it was over Hanoi. You got an airplane that's going 2,2-, 2,300 miles an hour, and it's very, very difficult to even come close. They figured that the missile exploded about a mile below me, and we're in and out of there in no time. Thank god.
NARRATOR: The cost of such speed was that the SR-71 needed to be refueled every two hours, but there was a slower alternative called the U-2. Bevacqua is one of only 12 pilots to have flown both, operationally.
TONY BEVACQUA: I was very proud of being a U-2 pilot, because of what we have done and what we're still doing. It's just a magnificent platform and does excellent reconnaissance.
NARRATOR: Still widely used today, nearly 60 years after its introduction, pilot endurance limits U-2 flight time to 12 hours.
MATT MCDONOUGH: It's pretty demanding on their bodies. They have to wear a special high altitude suit for it, and then it wipes them out for a good couple of days. It fatigues them quite a bit to go that high.
NARRATOR: Manned spy planes are not only limited by human endurance, they also bring the risk of pilot loss. In 1960, Bevacqua's friend, Francis Gary Powers, was shot down while flying a U-2 over the Soviet Union.
NEWS VOICE: It was a propaganda field day for the Russians.
NARRATOR: Power's cover story was that he was on a meteorological flight.
TONY BEVACQUA: Frank Powers tried to say it was a weather flight, but there's miles of film, and so, it was easy to discern what he was doing.
NEWS VOICE: And Khrushchev denounced the United States with every epithet in his vocabulary. He summarily rejected all attempts of the West, of reconciliation.
NARRATOR: Powers was imprisoned in Russia for more than two years, creating a major international incident and clearly demonstrating the need for unmanned spy planes.
NEWS VOICE: It was a development from the pilotless aircraft principle. Guidance was by radio from an accompanying aircraft, after reaching altitude.
NARRATOR: As early as World War Two, once at altitude, airplanes could be controlled by radio signals after the pilot bailed out, but for decades afterwards, before G.P.S., drones were limited by primitive autopilots and navigation systems. In the '60s and '70s, drones crashed constantly, including the most advanced unmanned aerial vehicle, or U.A.V., the Aquila drone. That averaged a crash every 20 hours.
PETER SINGER: It was a small propeller drone that would fly over the battlefield and gather information and beam it back to you. The problem is, back in the '70s, the technology wasn't ready yet. It was a billion dollar program by the time they just got a couple of prototypes.
ABE KAREM (Karem Aircraft, Inc.): I was frustrated that the U.S. could not make U.A.V.s really work.
NARRATOR: Abe Karem is the father of the Predator.
ABE KAREM: This is one of two small U.A.V.s, built in my garage, between 1980 and 1983. I was borrowing $18,000 a year from family. That's all we had. Everything was built with the lowest possible technology. We were trying to show that, if you design the best you can, then you are going to get performance by design.
NARRATOR: On his first prototype, the Albatross, Karem placed the engine and propeller in the rear so they wouldn't interfere with the delicate sensors up front. And the inverted tail is also still visible on its famous descendant.
ABE KAREM: Down-deflected tails are there to protect the prop, so when it tilts back, it's hitting the skids and not hitting the propeller.
NARRATOR: An ex-fighter-jet-engineer, today Karem designs and builds planes, at his company in California. In the '70s, when he started working on drones, he realized that without a pilot in the seat, a whole new world of design possibilities opened up. Other unmanned aerial vehicles of the time were still too closely modeled on manned aircraft.
ABE KAREM: I said, "I don't like what I see. I'm not going to take the engine, I'm not taking the prop, I'm not taking the landing gear, I'm not taking the computer."
NARRATOR: Karem believed that efficiency and lightness were the key to creating an affordable, high endurance U.A.V., so, first, he gave his craft long wings, to prioritize lift over speed.
ABE KAREM: When you want to be efficient, you want to be like the soaring birds, with very long-span wings. The albatross is the best gliding bird, it is 20 times more span than the chord. And my Albatross, the U.A.V Albatross, was close to that.
NARRATOR: Karem built the Albatross from scratch, in his garage. He modified a go-kart engine to burn only 1/10th of a gallon of fuel an hour. And "Albatross" soon evolved into "Amber," a 15-foot-long, 28-foot-span U.A.V., with 38-hour endurance. Karem relied on seed money from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Its early investments in artificial intelligence and other technologies led to countless civilian uses and made modern U.A.V.s possible.
PAUL EREMENKO (Deputy Director, Tactical Technology Office, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency): In the 1970s and 1980s, with significant DARPA impetus and some DARPA funding, a variety of new technologies emerged, including the Global Positioning System, long-range data links, lightweight computer equipment and composite materials, as well as satellite communications and digital flight controls. The Albatross and the Amber were the harbingers of the modern era of U.A.V.s.
ABE KAREM: We were a total team of three people. And we proved a lot of what we wanted to prove. The Secretary of the Navy and the head of DARPA, they said, "Okay, you fly 500 hours, how many are you going to crash?" We ended up not crashing any, in the 500 hours we did for the military.
NARRATOR: Karem's Amber prototype never went into full production, but after a number of incarnations, by the mid-90s, his design became known as the Predator.
MAINTENANCE OFFICER, HOLLOMAN AFB: Do not handle the missile by the strikes, wings, fins, seeker head, rocket motor, nozzles, umbilical connector, or housing, during loading and to prevent damage to the equipment and/or injury to personnel.
ABE KAREM: My U.A.V.s were not meant to be armed.
MAINTENANCE OFFICER, HOLLOMAN AFB: Break.
ABE KAREM: It was really built for the Cold War, when we had the big tactical challenge, with so much artillery on their side and so much artillery on our side.
MAINTENANCE OFFICER, HOLLOMAN AFB: Ready.
NARRATOR: With two large armies facing off, U.A.V.s could be used for espionage but not attack. Then, after 9/11, America started targeting individuals.
ABE KAREM: Now, we are fighting non-state enemies, so it starts making sense to arm the U.A.V., which is not my intention, in the beginning.
NARRATOR: In October, 2001, an armed Predator changed warfare forever.
DAVID DEPTULA: I was the commander of the air operations against Afghanistan, where we actually used, for the first time, a weapon off the MQ-1 Predator. The advantages were enormous, an order of magnitude beyond where remotely piloted vehicles had been, just 10 years prior, in Desert Storm.
NARRATOR: Since this initial strike, drones have proven so effective that the Air Force is now training more remote pilots than manned fighter and bomber pilots combined.
JASON (Last Name Withheld for Security, Major, United States Air Force): So, play on the scenario…
NARRATOR: At Holloman Air Force Base, in New Mexico, instructor Major Jason, teaches this new generation of pilots. The stakes are high when operational, so they begin on video simulators. He invents practice scenarios, programmed using Xbox video game controllers.
JASON: Adam zero nine, you are cleared hot.
…stuff that we can't do with the real plane…I can do anything here. The world's whatever I want it to be.
STUDENT: Three, two, one, rifle.
JASON: It's a controlled environment. And we really want them to learn here, so that when they do go operational, you know, they've already made all those mistakes.
STUDENT: Uh, pilot, I, it doesn't look like I ever turned the laser on, so I don't know where the missile went.
JASON: How did that happen?
If that would have happened in the real world, that would be a really, really bad day.
NARRATOR: Unlike fighter pilots, who train for a minimum of two years, remote pilots learn to fly their increasingly automated drones in less than one.
MISSY CUMMINGS: The F.A.A. did a study recently that showed that pilots with real flight experience in manned aircraft are actually worse U.A.V. pilots than those that have no flight experience and, really, come in off the street. You actually bring in a skill set that you don't need and a set of expectancies that you shouldn't have when you're flying a U.A.V., if you came from a manned aircraft. So the Air Force is taking officers off the street, with no flight training, and putting them through the program. And they've been very successful.
JASON: They come here. They never went to pilot training, like I did. They're here for a few months, then they have to go operational, so it happens real fast.
Adam zero nine: rifle-time of flight, 15 seconds.
NARRATOR: And when pilots go operational, despite being half a world away from the action, it all feels very real.
JASON: Copy, splash.
CHAD: It's not like a video game at all. There's no reset button, there's no turning it off.
NARRATOR: In real strikes, like this one in Iraq, technology actually allows drone pilots to see more than manned pilots ever have.
CHAD: Because we have such a long motor time, there's potential to have eyes on the target that we are going to blow up, for hours ahead of time. Then we employ on it, strike the target, and then stick around for another few hours to watch what happens afterwards. And you have to stay there and then stay plugged in and stay focused on the destruction you just caused from your aircraft.
NARRATOR: In 2012 alone, the U.S. carried out hundreds of drone strikes across four countries Afghanistan is the only publicly authorized war, while strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen are covert C.I.A. operations, performed without putting American lives on the line.
PETER SINGER: The technology has enabled us to set aside some of the risk factors of sending a pilot in harm's way. So, it's meant that we've conducted a lot more strikes that would have been more problematic if we were using manned systems.
NARRATOR: The U.S. claims drones have decimated Al Qaeda's top leadership, while causing limited civilian casualties, but the facts are hard to come by.
SHUJA NAWAZ (Atlantic Council): We know fairly well how many strikes are occurring. What we don't know is the details: who the targets were, whether they were actually eliminated, or whether some other people were killed, because verification is very difficult.
NARRATOR: There are no fully reliable counts of civilian deaths, but some critics claim that as many as 30 percent of those killed in the broader drone wars are civilians, and that the strikes turn people against the U.S. and violate international law.
After more than 10 years of attacks, the U.S. officially acknowledged its use of drones to target Al Qaeda members, in April, 2012, when presidential advisor John Brennan gave a speech.
JOHN BRENNAN (Advisor to President Barack Obama/Speech, April, 2012): The United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific Al Qaeda terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as "drones."
NARRATOR: He was met with a strong reaction.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: What about the hundreds of innocent people we are killing with our drone strikes in Pakistan and in Yemen and Somalia? They deserve an apology from you, Mr. Brennan. I speak out on behalf of the Constitution, on behalf of the rule law. I love the rule of law. I love my country. You're making us less safe by killing so many innocent people around the world. Shame on you.
SHUJA NAWAZ: It's very critical that the U.S. public understand what is happening with the use of this technology, because it is being done in the name of the United States.
NARRATOR: Drone technology enables America to strike virtually anyone, anywhere, with ease, regardless of national boundaries.
PETER SINGER: We've seen deep controversy surrounding these strikes, in places like Pakistan or Yemen or Somalia, and a whole new series of questions for international law.
SHUJA NAWAZ: The fact that you are not flying a human being across a national boundary still makes it an invasion of a country.
PETER SINGER: We've entered an era where we're conducting an array of operations using unmanned systems that in a previous generation we would have called war, and we would have treated like war. When you're conducting more than 300 air strikes in a country, you're conducting an equivalent of at least an "air war" campaign. But we don't call it that now.
NARRATOR: Drones can strike with pinpoint precision, but their visual sensors are limited in ways that can lead pilots to make mistakes.
CHAD: As they stand now, the limitation they have with the Predator is not being able for the pilot to look around and see what's going on.
NARRATOR: When the operator zooms in to see detail, it's like looking through a soda straw, and the pilot loses the broader picture.
DAVID DEPTULA: These individual little, small sensor balls could generally see only a very small area on the earth, even if you're up at 20,000 feet.
CHAD: I can't look out and see that maybe there's something else going outside and around me.
NARRATOR: So the crew's grasp of the situation can be limited, and when they zoom in, they sometimes lose sight of key details on the ground.
This secret 2010 transcript, obtained by journalists through the Freedom of Information Act, reveals what can go wrong. While supporting forces on the ground, a Predator team mistook a convoy of Afghan civilians, including women and children, for militants.
The pilot asks, "Is that a rifle?" The answer is, "Can't really tell." After hours of monitoring, the ground commander calls in a strike and 23 civilians die, in part because of limitations of the sensors.
But engineers are working to create new sensors that can see more, in greater detail, than ever before.
DAVID DEPTULA: Today, we've developed sensors that can watch with an "all-seeing" eye and see in an area about the size of a small city, all at one time.
YIANNIS ANTONIADES (BAE Systems): This is the next generation of surveillance. For the first time, we actually have permission from the government to show the basic capabilities. It is important for the public to know that some of these capabilities exist.
NARRATOR: Engineer Yiannis Antoniades designed the new sensor, known as ARGUS. With 1.8 billion pixels, it's the world's highest resolution camera. ARGUS fits inside this pod that attaches to the belly of a U.A.V., but, because much of the work is classified, we can't see the sensor itself.
YIANNIS ANTONIADES: Because we are not allowed to expose some of the pieces that make up the sensors, we get to look at pretty plastic curtains.
NARRATOR: Also known as "wide area persistent stare," ARGUS is the equivalent of having up to 100 Predators look at an area the size of a medium-sized city, at once.
This image was taken 17,500 feet above Quantico, Virginia, and covers 15 square miles.
YIANNIS ANTONIADES: This whole image is at a very, very fine resolution. So, if we wanted to know what is going on in any spot along this image—say, near this building, at this intersection—we can generate a moving image that shows what's going on in the area.
NARRATOR: Simply by touching the screen, Antoniades has opened up a window showing a detailed area, while still maintaining the broader context.
YIANNIS ANTONIADES: And everything that is a moving object is being automatically tracked. The colored boxes represent that the computer has recognized the moving objects. You can see individuals crossing the street, you can see individuals walking in parking lots. There's actually enough resolution to be able to see the people waving their arms, or walking around, or what kind of clothes they wear. And you could pick the location of where you produce these images anywhere in the entire field of view.
NARRATOR: Antoniades can open up to 65 windows at once and can see objects, as small as six inches, on the ground.
YIANNIS ANTONIADES: From even 17,500 feet, the white thing that you see flying around is a bird.
NARRATOR: ARGUS streams live to the ground and also stores everything, a million terabytes of video a day, which is the equivalent of 5,000 hours of high definition footage.
YIANNIS ANTONIADES: So you can go back and say, "I would like to see what happened at this particular location three days, two hours, four minutes ago." And it would actually show you exactly what happened as if you were watching it live.
NARRATOR: To create the world's highest definition camera, Antoniades needed to design a new imaging chip, but DARPA, the project's funder, wanted to move fast and keep costs down, so
YIANNIS ANTONIADES: Inside this cell phone we find a tiny little camera. So, if you were to take off the majority of it, you'd be left with an imaging chip. If you were to take 368 of these and make a big mosaic out of them and start shooting images, now you have ARGUS.
NARRATOR: Unlike the Predator camera that limits field of view, ARGUS melds together video from each of its 368 chips, to create a 1.8-billion-pixel video stream. This makes it possible to zoom in and still see tremendous detail.
Whether ARGUS has been deployed in the field is classified.
YIANNIS ANTONIADES: I'm not at liberty to discuss plans with the government, but if we had our choice, we would like ARGUS to be over the same area 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That's not very easily achievable with manned platforms. This is where U.A.V.s come in, and they're absolutely the perfect platform.
NARRATOR: ARGUS may be mounted on an armed U.A.V. like the Predator, a long-range platform like the giant Global Hawk, or a development craft, called the Solar Eagle that may someday stay aloft for years at a time.
MISSY CUMMINGS: The U.S. Air Force, right now, has the ability to archive every single video that comes off of every single U.A.V. We're moving to an increasingly electronic society, where our movements are going to be tracked.
NARRATOR: While technologies like ARGUS are expanding the reconnaissance power of U.A.V.s, unmanned aircraft remain vulnerable in other ways.
The Air Force's large drones still crash more often than manned planes. The $100-million Global Hawk is nearly three times more likely to crash than the U-2 it was designed to replace. Even if there's no pilot to lose, when a drone goes down, it can still be a problem.
DAVID DEPTULA: It doesn't take a thermonuclear brain surgeon to figure out that, if you are operating a highly advanced technologically capable system, that you prefer not for it to fall into adversary hands.
NARRATOR: In 2011, an American spy drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel, was lost over Iran.
DAVID DEPTULA: 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.
NARRATOR: The Iranians claimed they hacked into the drone's control system and took over the craft. And, in theory, it is possible to take over any computerized system.
PETER SINGER: You could never call up Maverick, in his F-14, in the movie Top Gun, and say: "Maverick, re-code all American jets as Russian jets." Tom Cruise would have laughed his weird cackle and said: "No way, man."
With a computer you can do that: either jam it, or, even more so, coopt its operations. It's a whole new era in war. It opens up a lot of new possibilities and, of course, huge new dangers to think about.
NARRATOR: Why the Sentinel went down remains classified, but experts point out that drones often crash for very basic reasons.
BILL SWEETMAN (Aviation Week): U.A.V.s sometimes aren't that smart. Their self-diagnosis isn't all that smart, and by the time they have a problem, it's too late: you lose a link, lose power and you're gone.
NARRATOR: Control can be lost for a number of reasons. When Reaper pilot Chad simply banks too sharply, he loses the satellite link…
CHAD: Uh oh.
NARRATOR: The picture freezes, and he's momentarily flying blind.
CHAD: That was me, turning.
NARRATOR: He quickly levels the craft and restores the link.
CHAD: I was turning aggressively, and it had trouble keeping up the satellite link.
DAVID DEPTULA: There is a degree of vulnerability involved with remotely piloted aircraft that have a command link, where they're actually operated by operators, that you can overcome by having a human in the cockpit.
PILOT: Dark Star, Dark Star.
MATT MCDONOUGH: If, for some reason, I, all of a sudden, hear an increase in airspeed, and I start to feel a roll, I'm not intending for that to happen, well, something is going wrong, and I need to make sure I am doing what I need to be doing.
NARRATOR: Unlike manned planes, drones depend on control links that can be lost or, potentially, as may have happened with the Sentinel, even taken over by the enemy. But what if a craft could operate on its own, free of any links, and even make its own decisions?
In a lab at the University of Pennsylvania, Vijay Kumar is funded, in part by the military, to create autonomous drones that don't need external links and, like us, can sense their environment.
VIJAY KUMAR (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Lab, University of Pennsylvania): What you see on this robot are these two chips, here, which are, essentially, rate gyroscopes. These play the same role as the semicircular canals in the human body, located near the ears, which, essentially, tell us orientation. So the rate gyroscopes that are on board can actually measure these angular velocities at thousands of times a second. This chip here is the accelerometer, and this allows the robot to sense accelerations in the lateral direction. So these are analogs to the otolith organs that measure acceleration in the human head.
NARRATOR: When a human pilot feels an unexpected change in acceleration, he knows to adjust the aircraft.
VIJAY KUMAR: The robots do exactly the same thing.
NARRATOR: The sensors adjust the craft by changing the relative velocities of the rotors and allow the drones to follow a leader with precision.
VIJAY KUMAR: A fundamental problem in coordinating multiple robots is the ability to maintain formations. What a robot has to do is determine where its neighbors are and figure out what the relative position is and then monitor the relative separation very carefully. You only need to tell one robot how to move, and the other robots essentially maintain formation, by just keeping a specified relative distance. In the figure eight they come within inches of each other, so they have to combat aerodynamic effects from their neighbors, and they have to have very, very precise control. And all that is done autonomously.
NARRATOR: The precision of the robots allows them to do some things more quickly and accurately than human pilots can, like predict the movement and the shape of an object and adjust accordingly.
VIJAY KUMAR: In terms of acrobatics, I think it'll be hard to beat what a robot can do. The neuromuscular system in the human body, there may be delays of the order of 80 milliseconds or 200 milliseconds before you actually take an action, in response to what you see. Well, robots have this unfair advantage. They can do these computations hundreds of times a second, so your delays are of the order of a millisecond and perhaps even less.
NARRATOR: In the lab, the drones communicate with a central computer that uses motion capture, an optical system that tracks silver reflective markers on the robots and tells them where they are at all times, but soon it may be possible to cut the cord. And they've already developed another autonomous drone that can go anywhere on its own.
VIJAY KUMAR: The Holy Grail is to do all of this without any kind of external sensing, without G.P.S., and, in principal, we can do it. These bigger robots actually rely on observations of external features to tell them where they are in the environment.
NARRATOR: This drone carries a laser range finder that determines distance to obstacles, and a depth camera that reveals 3D information about the surroundings.
VIJAY KUMAR: They carry on board the processing power, the sensors, that are necessary to look at the environment, to reason about the environment. So they can take their relative location and the location of the features to build a three-dimensional map.
I'd like to see this technology being used for humanitarian purposes. Imagine there is a 911 call from the building. I think we will soon have the technology that enables let's say 20 U.A.V.s to just swoop through the building and, within a minute, find out who is in each room and then communicate that to firefighters, who are waiting outside. But any technology that you develop, there are always people that are going to use it in ways that the designer never intended them to be used.
NARRATOR: And the key components of drone technology are already available to virtually anyone.
COREY BRIXEN: Come on, Johnny! Go over there.
I got into the hobby about four years ago. It started out as a toy for my dogs to chase. I'm pretty obsessed with the hobby. I am currently single, have been for 30 years, no kids. I just live here with my three dogs, and I get to spend nearly every night and every weekend working on these things.
NARRATOR: Corey Brixen, of Orange County, California, is one of tens of thousands of drone hobbyists across the country.
COREY BRIXEN: The basic quadcopter is about $500, which is the frame, the motors, speed controllers, the electronics that you need. This is actually the G.P.S. sensor, and that's sending the signals out to the satellites. The cameras, as small as they are, they are high definition footage.
NARRATOR: Like the Predator, Corey's quadrotor has a programmable autopilot that uses G.P.S. to navigate. He can set locations, altitude and speed, so the craft can fly autonomously.
Corey flies for fun, but drones, small and large, are increasingly used domestically for more serious purposes. The border patrol searches for illegal migrants with Predators; police departments are turning to smaller drones for reconnaissance; and thousands of individuals use them for their own, sometimes political, ends.
STEVE HINDI (SHARK): We don't consider ourselves to be animal rights activists, we're investigators. Some of our targets are pigeon shooters in Pennsylvania. So we had the copter up, filming what's going on. There were a couple of shots, and it's slowly losing altitude, and then it takes one more shot, and it's down in the trees. You can hear the shooters start cheering and laughing and all that kind of thing. What they didn't know is that we had more.
NARRATOR: This incident is the first known shoot-down of a domestic drone, but it may not be the last. The spread of drones has raised concerns about privacy and even led one senator to propose legislation limiting domestic use.
RAND PAUL: I think anybody that can use a device to peer into your activities, even if it's the air outside your window or the air above your property, I think there is a right to privacy. And I'm all for making sure that, you know, all these drones don't come back from Afghanistan and Iraq and get put to a purpose here that isn't consistent with our Constitutional bearings. The worry is that, in two to three years, we will have 30,000 drones, crisscrossing the sky, accumulating all this information.
PETER SINGER: It's a game changer, but it's not just an American revolution. There are more than 55 other countries, right now, that are building, buying or using military robotics, particularly in the air.
NARRATOR: Iran recently announced it has its own armed drone, with a range of over a thousand miles. It's not known whether any of the technology was adopted from the lost U.S. Sentinel, but in the drones arms race, the U.S. is constantly developing new technologies, like a small flying camera with a twist, called "Switchblade."
STEVE GITLIN (AeroVironment, Inc.): The Switchblade will launch out of this tube, and the wings, the tail, the propeller will all spring open. That's why it's called Switchblade. So, when the operator finds the target, by looking into the viewing screen, he will then send a command to the Switchblade that will enable the Switchblade to, basically, hone in on that target and detonate its explosive charge, upon contact. It's a tool that our customers are very excited about. And it's a tool, we think, that will protect our forces and help save innocent lives.
NARRATOR: Switchblade's already been deployed, and a killer drone that may someday replace a manned fighter is on the horizon.
PRESS CONFERENCE MC: About a decade ago, some folks got together and they said, "What if we want to put unmanned aircraft on an aircraft carrier? How do we do that?"
NARRATOR: This X-47B prototype is the world's first tailless, fighter-sized drone, but it's still a year or two away from its first goal: to take off and land on an aircraft carrier.
MATT FUNK (United State Navy, Lead Test Engineer, X-47B): We're maturing the technology required to take this unmanned vehicle to land on the flight deck, autonomously. We're focusing on the mechanics of landing the aircraft, where you have a predetermined position that you're targeting to. And the aircraft can react very quickly to changes in that environment to put itself on that preplanned position.
The system has a lot of sensors, a lot of instrumentation on it, so it knows how all of its subsystems are behaving. It knows how its engine and all of its control surfaces are performing, at any time. It'll turn when we expect it to turn, it'll come back when we expect it to come back, and it'll land on the runway that we planned.
NARRATOR: Drones are no longer just eyes in the sky, and someday U.A.V.s like the X-47B may be involved in sophisticated attacks alongside manned jets.
PETER SINGER: It's the idea of the mix, the team working together, that's probably the future. We won't see every plane on the aircraft carrier be one of these. So right now, the vision is, we'll just have one or two, but when they get them, and maybe they'll prove more useful, then it may be, "Well, we don't want one or two, we want a squadron."
It's a lot like if you look at first use of mechanized forces. Originally, it was lots of horses and just a couple of trucks and tanks, and you saw things change and change and change, over time. We'll probably see the same thing happen in robotics.
NARRATOR: As drones like the X-47B mature, they'll become more autonomous, likely conducting bombing runs, then more complicated air-to-air operations. Even as policymakers debate the rules of engagement for drones, technology is moving forward, toward a time when drones might operate with intelligence that more closely resembles our own. But for now, they can't do what a pilot can.
MATT FUNK: When you get an aircraft like this over hostile territory, you'll have potential targets or threats that will pop up, unplanned. So what we haven't done yet is develop the technology that would then react to those unplanned targets or threats.
PRESS CONFERENCE MC: Thank you very much for coming to Pax River, today.
PAUL EREMENKO: I think U.A.V.s of the future will certainly be able to exhibit increased levels of autonomy. But I think if you were to ask most autonomy researchers or most A.I. researchers about whether the Rise of the Machines-type scenario is a real concern, their response would be, "We should be so lucky." In fact, if we could get little slivers of that kind of adaptive and cognitive capability into systems, that would be a very significant breakthrough, from where we stand today.
MATT MCDONOUGH: I've flown about 2,000 hours, and the missions I've flown seldom go as planned. There's a lot of pieces that I don't think…you never plan for.
ABE KAREM: Nothing can replace the human being, in a tactical environment, saying what to do next and why not this and why not that.
RADIO TRANSMISSION: This is the captain, 1539. Hit birds…
ABE KAREM: An Airbus 320 with 150 passengers goes into a flock of Canadian geese and needing to land…
RADIO TRANSMISSION: We can't do it.
ABE KAREM: "I can't do it. I'm going on the Hudson." You want to be in a robotic 320 in that situation, or do you want Sullenberger to land you? Because you can't anticipate everything.
NARRATOR: This ability to respond to the unknown may be the final hurdle if drones are ever to fully replace manned planes and start making decisions on their own.
ABE KAREM: I think we're far, but let me say I am the last guy who says, "Impossible."
NARRATOR: As human ambition drives innovation forward, the only thing that's certain is that the Predator and other drones of today are nothing compared with what's to come.
PAUL EREMENKO: Ultimately, DARPA's mission is the creation and prevention of strategic surprise, so, if we are successful, we will all be surprised.
CHAD: Historically, you look at when the Wright brothers first flew: in 1903. A hundred years later, we are actively flying a remotely piloted aircraft. So, we're kind of on the ground floor now. There's nowhere to go but up.
- WRITTEN, PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
- Peter Yost
- ASSOCIATE PRODUCER
- Frauke Levin
- EDITED BY
- Anna Auster
- Rich Confalone
- NARRATED BY
- Craig Sechler
- Pixeldust Studios
- PRODUCTION MANAGER
- Edna Alburquerque
- ASSISTANT EDITOR
- Mara Auster
- ONLINE EDITOR AND COLORIST
- Björn Bellenbaum
- AUDIO MIX
- Patrick Donahue
- SOUND EDITOR
- Andrey Netboy
- ADDITIONAL RESEARCH
- Kathryn Wallace
- PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS
- Gerald Doherty
Samuel A. Taffel
AAI/ Textron Systems
AP Photo/ Bettmann/Corbis
AP Photo/Steven Day
[C-Span] - double checking credit requirement.
Department of Defense
Historic Films Archive LLC
Karem Aircraft, Inc.
KMel Robotics/ Alex Kushleyev, Daniel Mellinger
Lockheed Martin Corporation Copyright © 2012, LOCKHEED MARTIN CORPORATION
Next Media Animation
Northrop Grumman Corporation
University of Pennsylvania/ GRASP Laboratory/ Vijay Kumar/ Frank Shen
U.S. Air Force
Vanguard Defense Industries
- SPECIAL THANKS
- U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force/ ANG
BAE Systems, Inc.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, TX
New America Foundation
Rally Point Management
Lawrence "Marty" Shelton
Michael T. Weaver Richard Whittle
- NOVA SERIES GRAPHICS
- yU + co.
- NOVA THEME MUSIC
- Walter Werzowa
- ADDITIONAL NOVA THEME MUSIC
- Ray Loring
- POST PRODUCTION ONLINE EDITOR
- Spencer Gentry
- CLOSED CAPTIONING
- The Caption Center
- MARKETING AND PUBLICITY
- Karen Laverty
- Eileen Campion Victoria Louie
- SENIOR RESEARCHER
- Kate Becker
- NOVA ADMINISTRATOR
- Kristen Sommerhalter
- PRODUCTION COORDINATOR
- Linda Callahan
- Sarah Erlandson
- TALENT RELATIONS
- Scott Kardel, Esq.
- LEGAL COUNSEL
- Susan Rosen
- DIRECTOR OF EDUCATION
- Rachel Connolly
- DIGITAL PROJECTS MANAGER
- Kristine Allington
- SENIOR DIGITAL EDITOR
- Tim De Chant
- DIRECTOR OF NEW MEDIA
- Lauren Aguirre
- PRODUCTION MANAGER
- Stephanie Mills
- POST PRODUCTION ASSISTANT
- Brittany Flynn
- POST PRODUCTION EDITOR
- Rebecca Nieto
- POST PRODUCTION MANAGER
- Nathan Gunner
- COMPLIANCE MANAGER
- Linzy Emery
- BUSINESS MANAGER
- Elizabeth Benjes
- DEVELOPMENT PRODUCER
- David Condon
- PROJECT DIRECTOR
- Pamela Rosenstein
- COORDINATING PRODUCER
- Laurie Cahalane
- SENIOR SCIENCE EDITOR
- Evan Hadingham
- SENIOR PRODUCERS
- Julia Cort
- SENIOR SERIES PRODUCER
- Melanie Wallace
- MANAGING DIRECTOR
- Alan Ritsko
- SENIOR EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
- Paula S. Apsell
A NOVA Production by Pangloss Films, LLC for WGBH
© 2013 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved
- © HIGH-G Productions/Stocktrek Images/Corbis
- RPA Pilot, Captain, USAF
- Yiannis Antoniades
- BAE Systems
- Tony Bevacqua
- Pilot, Lt. Col., USAF (Ret.)
- Corey Brixen
- Mary "Missy" Cummings
- MIT Humans and Automation Lab
- David Deptula
- Lt. General, USAF (Ret.)
- Paul Eremenko
- Deputy Director, TTO, DARPA
- Matt Funk
- NAVY Lead Test Engineer, X-47B
- Steve Gitlin
- AeroVironment Inc.
- Steve Hindi
- SHARK, Animal Abuse Investigators
- Abe Karem
- Karem Aircraft, Inc.
- Vijay Kumar
- University of Pennsylvania
- Matt McDonough
- F-16 Pilot, Maj, USAF ANG
- Shuja Nawaz
- The Atlantic Council
- Rand Paul
- U.S. Senator, Kentucky
- Peter Singer
- New America Foundation
- Bill Sweetman
- Aviation Week
Preview | 02:26
Full program available for streaming through
Full program available