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The Age of the Drone, an eyebrow-raising new documentary, reveals a game-changing revolution that’s happening overhead. The drones are here — pilotless flying bots, usually equipped with cutting-edge cameras and GPS navigation. Whether you know it or not, they’re up there  and soon there will be many, many more of them.

In a follow-up to their earlier documentary Remote Control War, a film about the military use of drones, Winnipeg filmmakers Leif Kaldor & Leslea Mair of Zoot Pictures talk about civilian and government non-military applications of drones. Listen to an interview.

Drones are a cutting-edge growth industry. More drones are sold every three months than the entire U.S. military uses.  In Canada, Ottawa’s ING Robotic Aviation and Kitchener-Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs, both featured in The Age of the Drone, are players in this huge new business. By 2020 the U.S. Federal Aviation Agency anticipates that more than 20,000 drones will be in the air in North America — and that doesn’t even include amateur operators. Get used to it: drones will be everywhere.

The Good

As The Age of the Drone reveals, there’s lots of upside to the increasing use of drones. The RCMP has saved lives using their flying robots in search and rescue missions in Saskatoon and Nova Scotia. Amazon and Google plan to deliver goods to your door using drones, and startups in Silicon Valley are figuring out how to use drones to deliver medicine to locations where there are no roads.  Farmers in Japan spray 90 per cent of their soy crops with drones.

Drone journalism allows the world to watch clashes between police and protesters in places like Turkey’s Taksim Square, in which a drone successfully filmed until it was shot out of the air. 

The Scout is a drone used by law enforcement, first responders, and the military.

At home, drones are being used for wedding videos, as a sales tool for real estate, for sports and to create the ultimate YouTube selfies. The possible applications are almost limitless.

Other future uses of drones that could benefit our human society are still in the ‘idea’ stage, but coming fast: they can operate collectively in swarms to build machines and architectural structures, or even act in hostage rescue scenarios.

The Bad

Unlike in Canada, where the laws regarding drones are relatively unregulated, restrictions in the U.S. have so far stopped most commercial use of drones, and lawsuits have put the entire question of drone use into a tricky grey area. Drone operation is almost impossible to police. They can hover over you in the privacy of your backyard or watch you through your bedroom window. Imagine paparazzi drones!

Safety is a problem, too.  There have been close calls involving near crashes with commercial airplanes. Identifying the owner of a drone is next to impossible if they are flying by remote or by GPS.

Then there’s Samy Kamkar, who can even electronically hijack other drones in mid-air, creating “zombie drones”.

The Ugly
A flock of 'parrots'

New technology will allow super-surveillance drones flying 30,000 feet high to see objects six inches across and track people's movements all day long, every day. With recent NSA revelations, how far can the data go towards tracking any of us?  Should we allow private investigators to use them? Concerns about privacy have resulted in drones being banned in many U.S. cities and states. The Age of the Drone interviews a man selling a ‘drone hunting’ licence, and another who counters that gambit with a shotgun-proof drone.

In The Age of the Drone, lawyer and robotics expert Ryan Calo defines the drone dilemma as he sees it: “I have three concerns regarding the domestic use of drones.  The first is massive surveillance by the government.  The second is that private parties will use drones to harass one another.  The third is that because of the backlash, the amazing potential of drones will never be realized.”

“The drones have come home from war zones and are here to stay,” says The Age of the Drone director/co-writer Leif Kaldor. “The question is: who gets to use them, and how? Like any new technology, there will be issues like privacy and safety when you put cameras on flying, remote-controlled robots. That said, drones are a blast! I fly mine around the office all the time, and use them to check the eaves.”  

The Age of the Drone is directed by Leif Kaldor and produced by Leslea Mair for Zoot Pictures in association with CBC.

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