Drones in “Eye in the Sky”

Helen Mirren as Col. Katherine Powell. Credit: Bleecker Street Media
Helen Mirren as Col. Katherine Powell. Credit: Bleecker Street Media

By Dan Gettinger

The recently released film Eye in the Sky challenges the audience to engage in a conversation about counter terrorism operations and, in particular, the targeted killing program. “In our case, in the case of the film, we wanted to create a scenario in which as much discussion as possible was possible within our film,” Gavin Hood, the director of Eye in the Sky, said in an interview with the Center for the Study of the Drone. “We didn’t want to make a film where the discussion ended at the local commander level.” The film depicts several military unmanned systems and the roles that different people have within an operation involving drones. Here’s a backgrounder on a few of the technologies in Eye in the Sky:

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper

The Reaper is one of the most recognizable drones in operation today. It has been used widely in military operations by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, as well as in the U.S. targeted killing campaign in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Spain and the Netherlands will also stand up Reaper units within the next few years. At 36 feet long and 66 feet wide, the Reaper can fly at a maximum altitude of 50,000 feet and has a maximum endurance of 27 hours. These surveillance and strike aircraft are likely to remain a cornerstone of the U.S. Air Force drone fleet for the foreseeable future. In Fiscal Year 2017, the Department of Defense has proposed spending a total of around $1.2 billion on Reaper systems. However, advancements in more sophisticated fighter drones could lead to the Reaper’s eventual replacement as the world’s leading combat drone. Last month, France and Britain agreed to a $2 billion project to develop a next generation surveillance and strike drone.

Ground Control Stations (GCS)

A portion of the film is set in a Ground Control Station at Creech Air Force base in Nevada, where the pilot and sensor operator of the Reaper, played by Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox respectively, fly the drone over Nairobi, Kenya. Most of the Ground Control Stations in use today are what General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., the primary contractor for the GCS, calls the Legacy systems. The GCS is designed to be mobile and can fit inside a C-130 Hercules cargo plane for transport. During each mission, pilots at a GCS that is forward deployed at a base overseas are responsible for taking-off and landing the drone before handing off control to other drone operators who, for the majority of each mission, fly and monitor the drone, deploy weapons and analyze the video imagery from a GCS inside the United States. The Air Force plans to begin procurement of the Advanced Cockpit GCS—also known as Block 50—in Fiscal Year 2018, though the development of the system has itself been rocky. The Block 50 promises a more comfortable pilot interface that will include 3D graphics and high-definition touchscreen displays.

GBU-12 Paveway II bomb and AGM-114 Hellfire II

At the beginning of the film, Colonel Katherine Powell, who is played by Helen Mirren, is informed that the Reaper aircraft that has been assigned to the mission is only carrying Hellfire missiles, and not Paveway bombs. Equipped only with the 100 pound Hellfires and without the heavier, 500 pound Paveways, the Reaper is able to spend more time loitering above the target. The Hellfire and Paveways are the primary munitions onboard U.S. Air Force Reapers. The U.K., however, has outfitted its Reapers with the MBDA Brimstone—a more advanced air-to-surface missile than the Hellfire—which it has used in air operations against the Islamic State. It is possible that the GBU-12 Paveway could at some point be replaced by the Small Diameter Bomb Increment II (GBU-53), a 204 pound bomb that’s designed for striking moving targets. The SDB II is designed for use onboard a range of platforms including fighter jets and currently undergoing a final round of tests.

AN/GSQ-272 Sentinel – Distributed Ground Control System (DCGS)

Several scenes in Eye in the Sky feature an intelligence analyst known as “Hawaii 5,” who helps mission commander Col. Powell identify the targets of the counterterrorism operation. The simultaneous connection between the drone operator, mission commander and intelligence analyst that is portrayed in the film is enabled by the Distributed Common Ground System. The DCGS is a global network of up to 27 geographically separated networked sites where analysts process, exploit and disseminate intelligence for commanders and, in this case, drone operators. Analysts at these sites draw from the raw intelligence collected by platforms like the MQ-9 Reaper or RQ-4 Global Hawk drones to help people in the field target enemy individuals. In the film, the intelligence analyst “Hawaii 5” is based at Hickam Air Force base in Hawaii, home to DGS-5. At Hickam, the 8th Intelligence Squadron is responsible for handling intelligence for commanders in the Pacific region as well as Central Command. The primary contractors for the DCGS are Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and L-3 Communications.

Micro Air Vehicles

Eye in the Sky features two biologically-inspired micro drones—a hummingbird and a beetle—that feed video footage of the targets to the mission commander. Biologically-inspired drones like these are designed to mimic the movements of actual insects or animals by incorporating, for example, flapping wings. Micro air vehicles are designed to give friendly forces on the ground a small, lightweight capability that allows them to quickly inspect the environment in which they are operating. In 2011, the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency’s Nano Air Vehicle program, which was initiated in 2005, produced the AeroVironment “Hummingbird” micro drone. Other micro drones like the Norwegian Prox Dynamics PD-100 Black Hornet have seen widespread adoption by some countries. In 2013, the U.K. issued a $30 million contract to Prox Dynamics to procure Black Hornets for 160 infantry units. Recently, the U.S. Army appears be following the British example. On March 1, 2016, the Army Contracting Command issued a request for information for the Soldier Borne Sensors system, a small unmanned air vehicle that weighs 150 grams and with a flight time of 15 minutes. As the film makes clear, however, this technology still has a way to go before it is truly mature. The challenge of developing small, powerful batteries is one that bedevils both the military and commercial development of new drones.

For updates, news, and commentary, follow us on Twitter.

[includeme file=”tools/sympa/drones_sub.php”]