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5 Things to Know About Eye in the Sky

June 28, 2016

WARNING: Spoilers ahead. But not all the spoilers, because I’m not that mean.

When Eye in the Sky first came out at the beginning of April, I knew the gist of the movie because it’s my duty to know about anything that involves drones. However, I didn’t see the film until last weekend when I brought home a copy of the DVD for review. The first scene made me cringe because I knew; I just knew something was going to happen that I probably wasn’t going to like.

I don’t plan to give all the details away, but here’s the official summary: “Eye in the Sky follows Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a U.K.-based military officer in command of a top secret drone operation to capture terrorists in Kenya. Using remote surveillance and on-the-ground intelligence, Powell discovers the targets are planning a suicide bombing and the mission escalates from ‘capture’ to ‘kill.’ But as American pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is about to engage, a 9-year-old girl enters the kill zone, triggering an international dispute, reaching the highest levels of American and British government, over moral, political, and personal implications of modern military missions.”

Whether you’re going to see the film (I think you should) or not, here are five important things to know about Eye in the Sky:

1) That drone up there is not what hobbyists and commercial drone users fly

It’s understandably confusing when the same word applies to both advanced military systems and the toy your neighbor’s kids are flying in the yard, but rest assured — civilian drones do not carry missiles or look as intimidating as the main drone in this film.

And it’s not the general public’s fault that this depiction comes to mind when talking about drones — mainstream media in the U.S. has been covering military drone strikes for years, but only recently began covering civilian drone use as drones have become more and more common.

But not all unmanned aircraft are the same. The military drone (the Reaper shown above) in the film is a fixed-wing drone, runs on fuel, can stay aloft for extended periods of time at much higher altitudes, has superior camera and tracking technology, and is much larger than civilian drones. Recreational and commercial drones can also be fixed-wing aircraft, but many are multirotors. Multirotors run on battery, resulting in incredibly low flight time and are tiny in comparison to the Reaper and other military craft.

bird-drone-eye-in-the-sky-drone movie

Bird or drone? (Travis A. Topa/Bleeker Street Media)

2) Animals make an appearance

While the Reaper plays a large part in Eye in the Sky, some animals make an appearance, too. Well, they’re not living, furry things, but rather bioinspired, whirring drones. These craft use technology modeled after the natural world.

Multirotors and fixed-wing aircraft are cool, but it’s always impressive (and somewhat disconcerting) to see bioinspired drones. In my opinion, they up the ante in terms of stealth and spying ability.

For instance, the film shows a small, beetle-like drone and a hummingbird drone (modeled after its real-world counterpart), used for immediate, covert reconnaissance. Once again, not all drones are the ones that carry missiles!

Check out this (non-military) bioinspired drone that takes cues from geckos and insects.

beetle-drone-pilot-eye-in-the-sky-drone movie

Not all drone pilots in “Eye in the Sky” sit in a dark room staring a monitor. This drone pilot was on the ground flying one of the two bioinspired drones. And he knows all too well about drones losing battery at  inconvenient moments. (Travis A. Topa/Bleeker Street Media)

3) Military and civilian drone pilots have some commonalities

OK, obviously there’s a big difference between a recreational, commercial, and military drone pilot. Yes, some military drones carry bombs and have the potential to cause devastation, while hobbyists casually fly in fields for fun. But there are some similarities and common grievances:

  • Worrying about short battery life
  • Sharing piloting responsibility with a co-pilot, visual observer, or camera operator
  • Fielding inquiries about their flight operations
  • Bearing responsibility for the public’s safety
  • Respecting authority

4) Military personnel and politicians have feelings and opinions

You should watch this movie just to see that military drone pilots (I can’t speak for all of them, but let’s be real) are people. Real, breathing humans with emotions and inner conflict. They just happen to be in a position where they have to listen to authority, whether they want to or not.

For those of us unfamiliar with the experience of piloting a military drone, it may be easy to assume that the job is less stressful than other military positions. However, studies show that many drone pilots experience PTSD and other forms of mental and emotional trauma.

As you can imagine, when you bring a group of diverse people together, either in real life or virtually, opinions will differ. This is exactly how it was in Eye in the Sky: Difficult military decisions like drone strikes are rarely easy, unanimous decisions. When it came to decide whether or not to follow through with the change in mission in Eye in the Sky, not everyone saw eye-to-eye.

(Keith Bernstein/Bleeker Street Media)

Not everyone always agrees on the best way to go about things, especially in life or death situations like a drone strike. (Keith Bernstein/Bleeker Street Media)

5) The film was written and directed to make the viewer ask questions

This film evokes a plethora of questions (these are only a few that came to mind as I watched):

  • Is it OK to conduct drone strikes?
  • Do civilian casualties matter?
  • How to weigh whether or not there’s too many civilian casualties?
  • Is an estimated target accuracy rate enough to just push a deadly button?
  • Do the decision makers have enough time to accurately think through the effects of a drone stroke?
  • When do you say “no”?
  • How does this impact the drone pilot launching a Hellman missile?
  • How does the US really debate drone strikes, because this movie really focused on the U.K.?
  • What the hell just happened?

Eye in the Sky has a great cast. Sometimes this, in and of itself, builds up a film to be spectacular, and at first, I wasn’t really dazzled. Some of the dialogue felt dry and unnatural, but perhaps that’s just tapping into the terse military lingo that I don’t necessarily understand.

While the dialogue didn’t “wow” me, the tech did. There are some seriously cool drones in this film — some that I didn’t expect to see. I thought the UAS star would be the standard, fixed-wing drone with a large camera attached to the undercarriage. Boy, was I wrong.

It was also fascinating being taken through the daunting, grueling, and difficult process of launching a Hellfire missile. However, I’m left wondering how accurate the depiction of this process was, and how this process differs for nations around the world.

Overall, this film made me think. It evoked a wide array of emotions: fear, anger, sadness, uncertainty, and helplessness. It was painful to watch at times because this film showcased the harsh realities of military drone strikes. It allowed me to see things from a different perspective. And that’s what drones continue to do: show us perspectives that we may not otherwise have considered.

Grab your copy of Eye in the Sky.

Featured image: Travis A. Topa/Bleecker Street

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