Drones on film: ‘Eye in the Sky’

Feb 22, 2016, 10:15 AM EST
(Source: Damian/flickr)
(Source: Damian/flickr)

In addition to periodic coverage of geopolitics in Latin America, W. Alejandro Sanchez has previously reported on substance abuse in Netflix’s ‘Jessica Jones’ and whether cyber warfare is accurately depicted in the USA network's ‘Mr. Robot.’ 

A new film about the (lethal) usage of unmannered aerial vehicles (UAVs) will hit the big screen soon. On March 11, ‘Eye in the Sky’ will have a limited release in the U.S. The film premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and has been praised for its portrayal of modern warfare. Indeed, drones are becoming a cornerstone of security and defense agencies worldwide and it’s interesting to see how ‘Eye in the Sky’ portrays this technology.

 The film’s plot is as follows: a combined U.S-UK intelligence operation is being carried out in Nairobi, Kenya. A drone has located a British female citizen who converted to Islam and joined Al-Shabaab, a real-world terrorist organization. The operation quickly goes from surveillance to target-killing when a bird-sized drone shows that alongside the wanted woman is another terrorist preparing a suicide vest. This twist prompts a debate between British and American policymakers, military leaders, mission commanders and even the drone operators. Notably: Is an attack by an armed drone on the terrorist house necessary and legal? Moreover, does the death of two high-profile terrorists justify the likely collateral damage (in this case, the death of at least one civilian girl who is near the target)?

If the movie is as engaging as the trailer, ‘Eye in the Sky’ could become a military classic, akin to ‘Rules of Engagement’ or ‘Dr Strangelove’ (a Variety film review states that it recalls the Stanley Kubrick film). And for analysts like myself who follow drone technology, this movie appears to address all the key points about the controversial usage of these weapons.

One issue that the trailer correctly portrays is the rapid real-world development of drone technology. ‘Eye in the Sky’ introduces miniature drones complete with high-quality camera feeds.  In the movie, we see bird and insect mini-drones that fly into the terrorists’ house to identify the occupants. In reality, such mini-drones already exist. In 2015, for example, U.S. military scientists created a miniature drone called the Cicada. According to DefenseNews.com, with “no motor and only about 10 parts” the Cicada “resembles a paper airplane with a circuit board.” It was manufactured to glide to pre-programmed GPS coordinates after being dropped from an aircraft or even a bigger drone.

The potential of mini-drones is seemingly endless, as recently noted by the Israeli defense news company i-HLS: “coupled with a distributed explosive-carrying capacity, [a group of them] could make for a cheap, hard to detect yet easy to deliver killing swarm.”

As for the plot of the film itself, the issue of collateral damage is a clear echo of real life as thousands of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and in the Horn of Africa have died as result of attacks by armed drones, which were targeting insurgents in the near surroundings. And from the trailer, it appears that the characters’ arguments are similar to those that really take place in Washington and London.

Of particular interest will be how the movie displays the emotions of the drone operators. The trailer shows a drone operator boldly declaring “I will fire [this missile] when this [innocent civilian] girl is out of the way.” The effects of drone warfare on operators are only now beginning to be properly studied and understood. For example, Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars has a comprehensive chapter entitled “The Intimacy of Remote Killing,” which includes various testimonies of drone operators and how remote killing affects them. Author Chris Woods concludes, “the [U.S.] Air Force rushed to expand its armed drone fleet following huge battlefield demand. Yet there was little understanding at first of the strains this would place on thousands of personnel fighting from the home front” (p. 173). Given this lack of detailed understanding, let’s hope that, at the least, films like ‘Eye in the Sky’ that deal with UAVs will properly address the psychological stresses of this job. Not to mention accurately display the real-life complexities of drone warfare, which, in a post-War on Terror world, will only continue to grow.

- W. Alejandro Sanchez, researcher
@W_Alex_Sanchez | Blog: Geopolitics