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Documenting the Next Generation of Drone Pilots

We talked to Tonje Hessen Schei about her new film, 'DRONE'
October 6, 2014, 5:00am

A Swedish Air Force drone pilot watching a kid play a video game. Photo by Lucian Muntean

During the 2010 White House Correspondents' Dinner, Barack Obama told the Jonas Brothers to stay away from his daughters. “I’ve got two words for you," he said, cueing up the punchline: “Predator drones. You’ll never see it coming.” The crowd burst into hysterics.

Back then, flying death machines that kill innocent people were a lot of laughs. Nowadays, it's unlikely the president's joke would get the same response. The Obama administration has launched eight times more drone attacks in the past five years than Bush did throughout his entire presidency, the deaths of civilians in drone strikes are frequently publicized, and in late 2012 the world became aware of “double taps," which involve two attacks in quick succession, ensuring the slaughter of friends and family trying to rescue their loved ones from the bomb site.


DRONE, a new documentary by director Tonje Hessen Schei, focuses on the people piloting these aerial assassins. In the film, she looks at how pilots are being recruited via video games and investigates the relationship between the military and the entertainment industry. I caught up with her recently for a chat.

Tonje Hessen Schei

VICE: Why did you want to make this film?
Tonje Hessen Schei: I got the idea for DRONE when I was working on my last film, Play Again, where I follow a group of teenagers in the United States who spent most of their time gaming. I came across a story of a gamer who dropped out of high school, joined the military, and very quickly became a drone pilot through the kind of skills he'd acquired gaming.

So having studied the impact that gaming has on our brains—and also having looked at the relationship between the entertainment world and the military industrial complex—I was concerned about this. And when Obama ramped up the drone program, deciding to create this battlefield with no questions asked and no transparency or accountability, we decided to make the film.

You mentioned the kid who dropped out of school. Were his gaming skills really that transferrable?
Well, most young people today are gamers. Not all drone pilots are gamers, but a lot of young people are gamers, and a lot of drone pilots are quite young. The US Army has used virtual reality and video games as a recruiting tool for a long time. They've been testing out different games and strategies, and they actually created their own video game, America’s Army, which is very much a recruiting tool. You enter your user information before you begin playing the game. They use real sounds and try to create a realistic feeling of being in a battle.


Oh, yeah, that ended up becoming pretty popular, right?
Yeah. It was supposed to be a recruiting tool, and it ended up being a very popular online video game played by around 9 million people worldwide. Gamers have skills such as multitasking, being able to relate to the user interfaces on screen, and hand-to-eye coordination. In the beginning of the drone program, the training that pilots got was minimal.

The boy who inspired my story basically became an instructor for drone pilots at the age of 19 with hardly any training whatsoever. However, this has changed quite a bit. The drone pilots we follow in the film have similar stories. They were placed in the drone program by pure coincidence, as when they ramped up the drone strikes they needed drone pilots, so they looked to recruit people from all kinds of places.

Is there a similar pattern occurring outside of America?
In the film, we look at how this is spreading to other countries. We've filmed in Sweden and Norway at gaming conferences where the military has been actively recruiting, targeting people down to 12 years old.

What's the training like? Is it very much the same as playing a video game?
The pilots we spoke to initially thought it would be super cool, as they felt it might be like a video game. They had a background in gaming. But they got very surprised, as being a drone pilot can be incredibly boring. It involves, for example, watching a house or place for months at a time, during which there is no action whatsoever. So that’s one of the things that the US Air Force is coming to terms with—the boredom of being a drone pilot.


But there are also stories of drone pilots gaming while at work and then using the headsets from work when they play videogames after work. Also, when the military designed the software they use in the drone operations, they talked to the gaming industry to figure out how kids think so they could create the most sensible interface. So the connection between the military and the entertainment industry is something that is very important to look at.

The trailer for DRONE

How did the drone pilots you spoke to feel about their line of work?
The pilots we followed during the film aren't part of current CIA operations. They did fly over Osama Bin Laden, but they weren't part of the main operation. They had strong objections to the manner in which the program is run from a constitutional standpoint. They feel that drones are an incredibly powerful tool and that they should be used purely for surveillance; that they aren't the right way to kill somebody. That’s something we’ve heard from a lot of people during this production. This technology is being used incorrectly, and there are serious questions around war crimes when it comes to how the strikes are conducted.

Would you be able to explain the term "double-tap"?
Sure. It involves targeting rescuers in a second strike. It’s horrible. Through this production, we've found that it’s quite common. So you basically have one drone strike, after which rescuers come in to try and help the injured in the rubble. A second strike then occurs. We've heard stories from people in which those trapped tell their rescuers to run away as a second strike is imminent. So people have stopped helping their loved ones.

Can you imagine having to listen to the cries of pain for hours and hours of your loved ones who you're terrified to go and help? This is a clear war crime. We've also talked to the Red Cross, who operate under a protocol to not visit the site of drone strikes for six hours. So they are very much aware of this.

What does the future hold for the use of drones in warfare?
This is just the beginning, and it's just getting started. There are countries all around the world developing this technology. It paints a terrifying future ahead, I think. And it's crucial that we now ask ourselves where we are headed.

DRONE gets it theatrical release this autumn. Keep up to date on the official website.

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