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Rise of the Drones a sky-high cautionary tale from Nova

Drone domo: "Father of the Predator" Abe Karem. PBS photo

Here's a factoid that might jump out at you.

The Air Force is now training more remote pilots than "manned fighter and bomber pilots combined."

So say the experts in Rise of the Drones, premiering Wednesday, Jan. 23rd at 8 p.m. central under PBS' prestigious Nova umbrella.

It's an eye-opening hour about a rapidly escalating and evolving technology that the government credits with eliminating roughly 70 percent of al qaeda's top leadership. The more benign name is Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, some of them were armed for the first time and used to deadly effect.

Nova was given access to some of the Drone engineers and training exercises, although secrecy still prevails for the most part. The U.S. didn't even officially acknowledge using such weaponry until April of last year. And in the wrong hands . . . well, the ongoing debate over gun control might someday seem like a pea-shooting exercise in comparison.

The so-called "Father of the Predator," an elderly, balding, bespectacled guy named Abe Karem, tells the cameras that "my UAVs were not meant to be armed." Instead they were developed for Cold War espionage purposes, flying very high overhead and gathering photographic evidence.

Some of the advantage are very clear-cut. Drones can be in the air continuously for 24 hours or more while a typical manned fighter plane has to re-fuel every two hours or so. Pilot fatigue also is a non-issue. Operated from afar -- and from just about anywhere -- UAVs can be piloted in rotating work shifts. And when a target is zeroed in on, "you can put a weapon through a window-sized opening with ease," says retired general Dave Deptula.

Still, civilian casualties have occurred. This is mainly because a Drone's remote control pilot -- they're initially trained with X Box video game controllers -- basically is "looking through a soda straw" during the final process of zeroing in. The bigger surrounding picture is out of sight pending ongoing development of wider viewing screens.

Also of major concern: Drones can be hacked. Iran succeeded in crashing a UAV -- and now claims to have its own armed Drones. Whether it might have perfected some of its technology via the downed U.S. Drone is still considered classified information.

A growing number of amateur UAV fliers also presents a potential problem. Corey Brixen of Southern California is one such avid "Drone hobbyist." His videos are all over youtube. Harmless. Right?

"We're kind of on the ground floor now," an expert says at program's end. "There's nowhere to go but up."

Look. Up in the sky. It's a bird. It's a plane. No, wait, it's an armed drone operated by a hidden, crazed survivalist.

Rise of the Drones isn't an alarmist hour, but does raise some caution flags in addition to showing a little footage from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Where technology is concerned, we once again proceed very much at our own peril.

GRADE: A-minus