Drones in Popular Culture: Unmanned "Point. Click. Kill." Military and Intelligence Machines?

In our first post, we offered a brief  company overview of Skynex Global Drones. In our second blog post, we turned our attention to the definition of drone, and the numerous, functional ways in which the term, or anyone of its numerous synonyms (e.g. unmanned system), can be defined in different ways to serve different purposes or functions. Having examined the number of ways in which drone can be defined, we now turn our attention to the contextual meaning that is often associated with the word "drone", and how this provides an accurate or inaccurate meaning. As is discussed immediately below, much of the popular understanding of the word "drone" has been shaped by the numerous Hollywood movies and documentaries that have depicted drones as military and intelligence tools. Does this truly provide an accurate and realistic backdrop against which the word "drone" can further derive meaning from? What are the implications of the public's understanding and perception of drones, as depicted on the big screen, on continued creation, innovation, and adoption of drones in other spheres of society? These, and other questions, are discussed in this third blog post. 

Drones as Evil Unmanned Military & Intelligence Killing Machines?

The arts and entertainment have acted as an important catalyst in popularizing drones. As early as 1989, drones were often featured in major Hollywood productions, such as in  Back to the Future Part II. In this sequel to the 1985 science-fiction adventure comedy film entitled “ Back to the Future, directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Bob Gale, Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) travels forward in time to October 21, 2015. Among many other technologies featured in the movie, drones were seen in the movie as being used by news agencies, including one scene in which USA today is videotaping Doc, a mad scientist who invents the traveling machine. [1] In yet another scene, a drone can be seen walking a well-tamed dog. One year later, in the less well-known movie entitled ‘ Mohajeran (The Immigrant) written and directed by Ebrahim Hatamikia, a man who controls small fixed-wing drones to detect Iraq’s front line, is put in danger of not being able to return to his home country. While movies about or, featuring drones continued throughout the following years, the film industry saw a stark increase in film productions featuring drones between the years 2013-2016.

The year 2013 saw a release of seven major Hollywood productions featuring drones. Popular titles included: “ Captain Philips”, “Dirty Wars”, “Elysium”, “Hummingbird”, and “ Oblivion”. That same year, the documentary film entitled “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars”, which investigates the impact of American drone strikes in Pakistan and other locations, as well as the documentary film “Dirty Wars”, which investigates American drone-assisted targeted killing, shined a negative light on UAVs being used for military, intelligence, and other defence purposes.

In 2014, at least 10 major movie titles featuring drones were released. Titles included: “ Captain America: The Winter Soldier”; “Force Majeure”; “From the Sky”; “The Giver”; “Good Kill”; “Interstellar”; “The Interview”; “RoboCop”; “Transformers: Age of Extinction”; and “X-Men: Days of Future Past”. Another documentary film, this one entitled “ Drone”, was released in 2014. This documentary also explored the role and use of drones in modern warfare. With only a single exception, most of these aforementioned titles released in the year 2014 depicted drones as either oppressive government surveillance tools, or as cold, calculated, autonomous machines used directly or indirectly to carry out killings. [2]

The years 2015 to 2017 saw the release of a combined total of 19 films featuring drones, with little to change to the overall image being projected on the big screen about drones. All major movie titles released during these years consistently depicted drones as either autonomous militaristic killing machines, miniature autonomous flying machines used by governments for nefarious purposes or, were simply evaluated within the context of modern warfare.  Even in ‘ Furious 7’, a weaponized drone is seen chasing the protagonists of the movie through the streets of Los Angeles. For itself, the 2015 film “ Eye in the Sky” features American and British operated drones that launch missile attacks, or tiny government drones that infiltrate terrorist compounds. More recently, the 2017 science fiction movie “ Blade Runner 2049” features a detachable voice-controllable drone capable of surveying and mapping urban and subterranean areas.

Concluding Commentary

While military and intelligence drones certainly play an important part of defining the public's popular understanding of UAVs, the reality of the matter is that military and intelligence drones represent only a very small, incremental percentage of the various uses and applications for which drones can be used and deployed, whether it be for commercial, industrial, or recreational purposes. Hollywood entertainment,  personal entertainmentdrone racing, search and rescue missions, firefighting, environmental monitoring, wildlife monitoring, ice monitoringagricultural mapping, infrastructure safety inspections, are but a few examples of the numerous other uses and applications for which drones can be used. So long as the public remains mindful that drones are not just tools to be deployed for military and intelligence purposes, innovation and creativity will continue to flourish in the drone industry. 

[1]Natalie Robehmed, ‘Five Things ‘Back to the Future Part II’ Got Right about 2015 Technology’ (Oct. 21, 2015) Forbes, available online at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/natalierobehmed/2015/10/21/five-things-back-to-the-future-part-ii-got-right/#3120789220d2, last viewed on 10/18/2017.

[2]For instance, in “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, drones called Sentinels hunt down and kill mutants. In “Transformers: Age of Extinction”, miniature drones are featured as villains. In “RoboCop”, drones are also depicted as machines used primarily by the military, and for military purposes. Even in the action comedy movie, “The Interview”, a drone is used once more for militaristic purposes, as it delivers a poison strip to poison to kill Kim Jong-Un. The movie “Good Kill” also revolves around a military context, and ethics surrounding the use of drones to further military and other security operations. In the movie “The Giver”, drones are depicted as surveillance machines employment by government against its citizens. In the movie “Captain America: the Winter Soldier”, drones are once more depicted as militaristic, autonomous killing machines.