THE DRONE AVIARY JOURNAL
The Drone Aviary – an R&D project from The Superflux Lab – is an investigation of the social, political and cultural potential of drone technology as it enters civil space. Through a series of ongoing installations, films and publications, the project aims to give a glimpse into a near-future city co-habit with ‘intelligent’ semi autonomous, networked, flying machines.
We were pleased to be invited by the V&A to present an installation of the project within the Civic Objects display at their ground-breaking show ‘All Of This Belongs To You’, running from 1st April to 19th July 2015. You’ll find our installation in Rapid Response Collecting, within the 20th century design exhibits, in the space adjacent to the smashed Snowden hard drive and laptop lent by the Guardian.
(The Drone Aviary Film, recommended viewing with headphones)
In this post, we want to share some of our intent behind the project, as well as our process of research, design, hacking, building and testing, all of which continues to be an intense but great learning curve.
PROJECT JOURNAL: INTENT, RESEARCH AND DESIGN PROCESS
It’s 2015. An inebriated off-duty government intelligence agent sends his DJI Phantom crashing into the White House, resulting in the private drone company forcing a mandatory firmware to disable all Camera Drones in Washington DC’s No Fly Zone with immediate effect. And this came just few weeks after a drone outfitted with mistletoe flew into a photojournalist’s face, bloodying her nose and chin. Whilst the occasional crash stories get all the coverage, the last couple of years have seen a prodigious rise in civilian drones with venture capital funding for drone-related startups totaling to $412 million in 2014. From NASA’s hurricane-hunting drones to methane-sniffing anti-fracking drones, to the larger corporate beasts such as Google’s Project Wing and Amazon’s Prime Air delivery service, Facebook’s solar drones, the more altruistic ventures such as the Drones for Good Award, the critical voices of the Centre for the Study of the Drone and Drone Journalism Lab, to the hugely popularDIYdrones.com – the interest in drones is growing faster than any regulatory framework around their use. Ruth Mallors, director of the UK aerospace Knowledge Transfer Network, estimates the value of all the potential services drones might provide could excede $400 billion a year.
All of this clearly shows the rather overwhelming excitement around civilian drones, whilst the technology remains “a moving target of invention and boundary-testing making it almost impossible to create legal and cultural boundaries quickly enough.” More importantly, it also means there is little opportunity to reflect on the implications of living with it today, or in the near future.
How will our cities adopt to them, what supporting infrastructure will need to be built, how will it weave into the fabric of the city, and how will it age?
As we have seen, the word “drone” is a complex, heavily loaded term; simultaneously a mascot of risk-transfer militarism, and an artifact of celebrity obsession, a tool for important journalistic endeavors and a DIY enthusiast’s dream. Whilst the focus is on innovation, there is little contemplation on how the presence of these machines will change our lived experience of the urban environment, and the way we understand and interact with their increasing autonomy. And that is precisely the ambition of the Drone Aviary project: to explore the physical, digital, spatial, and civic complexities of this technology. In our work we use the term ‘drones’ to suggest partial or full autonomy, although our bigger motivation is to use this technology as a vehicle to reflect on the wider consequences of how personal robotics might integrate into our everyday lives.
We also want to use this opportunity to investigate the technology not just as a ‘machine’ with all its technical capabilities, but to explore the vision it will have, the space and geography it will occupy, the network it will operate within, the physical and digital infrastructures it will use, and the legal and regulatory frameworks that bind it.
1. THE OBJECT
2. THE (AIR)SPACE
3. THE VISION
4. THE INFRASTRUCTURE
1. THE OBJECT (THE TECHNOLOGY, ITS MATERIALITY AND AESTHETICS)
We walked over from the Studio to Southwark Park, where Jon placed his drone down in the middle of the expansive patch of grass. He walked a few steps backwards, holding the controller. About seven of us stood right behind him. Dan was holding his laptop, I was ready to film the moment. Jonathan and Dillon were holding spare props and batteries, and Sam had his headphones on ready to listen to the input from his audio recorder.
Whooooosh. Easy lift off, the propeller blades cutting through the grass as it went soaring up into the sky, gently steering left all the way to the end of the park, then right, then back towards us, marking a perfect square. All of us stood in a row, cheering as we witnessed our first fully autonomous flight, from a drone we had built. It was exhilarating. It was the first step towards testing the RTK swift system, and excitedly we were talking about getting 5-10 drones flying autonomously in outdoor space, talking to one central system.
But just then, instead of landing where it was meant to, the drone began to accelerate and flew towards us. Everyone screamed, rushing back. And then almost as abruptly, it averted, flipped, raced backwards and gently landed a few yards away. Someone let out a sigh. A nervous laugh followed. Jon simply turned around and said, “Sorry I didn’t mean to scare you”. He had seen the flight going wrong towards the very end, and taken control of the remote just in time. That ever-so-brief moment of horror on the faces of those technologists, makers, designers and artists will remain an acute memory. Those who build and play with the technology, those who would be most equipped to deal with surprises were left shaken, if only for a fraction of a second.
This little episode gives a quick glimpse into our team’s relentless effort to get under the hood of this technology, spending vast amounts of time building and testing, in order to grasp its rapid growth, and understand the limits of (hacked) possibility. We are not drone or robotics experts, but we are designers (and jugaad practitioners, if you like), with enough skills and expertise to understand the complexities of this technology and test its limits. And this process of making, building, hacking, testing, and innovating is important because it’s only through such rigour that one begins to understand the huge disconnect between the hype and the ground-level reality of the technology.
For the original installation, we could have bought off-the-shelf drones, and got them to operate and fly. But it was deemed too expensive. We were forced to build everything from scratch – the frames and the drone brain (the autopilot system), as well as assembling it and making sure it survives flight. Our project’s focus has been on outdoor flight. Not indoors, with infrared cameras and sensors to guide them, but in an environment where drones are meant to be flying eventually, in order to understand the potential and limitations of autonomous flight.
Through this process we have also learnt how to move past the current lack of interoperability towards the design of a common operating system, encompassing both hardware and software. But let’s not forget that this whole thing of making it real and making it fly is in order to start revealing what these machines really do. With autonomy will come agency, and that’s when it starts getting messy and complicated. It’s the space we want to explore more and understand better, in order to invent, design, critique and disseminate.
FORM AND AESTHETICS
“Autonomous robots will displace our sense of control precisely because they are out of our control, but occupy the physical world and demand our attention.” Illah Nourbaksh
Each drone that we have developed serves as a touchpoint, a hook, a node that represents a deeper theme, issue or concern. And so it was important that the design and the aesthetic of each drone represents that theme, whilst inevitably becoming an integral part of a consumer landscape. Every aspect of each drone has been specifically built and designed, a conscious and deliberate aesthetic decision to moves beyond the off-the-shelf “machine” or ‘hacked’/’DIY’ aesthetic. By presenting them as‘products’ we want to reference ways in which beautifully designed products and seductive user experience often obfuscate the technology at play, and its intent.
2. THE VISION
“The conquest of physical space, the extension of society’s compass, the ability to be anywhere and see anything.”
– Benjamin Wallace-Wells
The second big challenge of understanding this technology starts the minute you get them to fly. As soon as they start flying, there is a complete and total collapse of the distance between us and the airspace surrounding us, as the drone becomes a new kind of disembodied prosthetic, allowing us to watch over the world with a little controller. Extreme acclivity can be exhilarating. It can make you feel both alone and unrivalled. Standing with your feet on the ground, the tips of your body push up and high into the sky, entering a state of temporary amaranthine. But this can also be simultaneously terrifying, as the drone can behave erratically, either because of your own incompetency or technical failure, and can result in damage, from destroying expensive equipment to causing harm or injury to people and property.
Stills from the film
Whatever the pros and cons, once you have this air-minded vantage point, you enter a position of strategic advantage and strength. A position that eludes to the magical effect of the pale blue dot, the overview effect and the change in cognitive ability. “Drones can democratize the overview effect. The scale is obviously magnitudes smaller but the principle is the same. They remind us that the truly remarkable thing is not looking up to marvel at the technology of a balloon or airplane or spaceship, it’s really what happens when you are up, and looking down.” Chris Anderson.
This might be true, but we also know that this vision becomes more then an adventure sport, it’s more then a breathtaking view. Seeing the world through the drone’s eye is powerful. And that’s because, drones are, most importantly, data-acquisition devices. Joanne McNeill and Ingrid Burrington make this explicit in their article: “All drones carry the burden that comes with being an instrument of tremendous power. It is the vantage point they offer, it is the data they collect from that vantage point, and it is the power afforded by that data.” Their sensors can also capture, record, transmit, share, save and even make decisions. As civilian drones become tasked with chores and functions, they will carry more sensors, gain further autonomy and even agency. This shift will be bumpy, full of bugs and crashes, but it will be a paradigm shift nonetheless. A shift that will bring with it a new language, vocabulary and in this instance, optics, which I daresay, will lead to a whole new politics.
Whilst not all drones are harnessing their sensor power for monitoring or surveillance purposes, they will all have this vantage point and will gain informational power, as they operate in this abstract communicational space. When the network is digital and invisible it appears to be like magic and we remained unchallenged, but what happens when it starts becoming visible and gain physical form? What will our relationship to it be, and how will we interpret its actions? Those who own the systems to breathe life into this informational power are the ones who become the most powerful. This, in turn has already given rise to a new kind of networked colonialism.
Stills from the film
In the film every drone’s point of view is presented through a series of video feeds, the data they acquire and the metadata they create. This drone vision gives a glimpse of banality of its tasks; capturing, recording and logging data, its capacity to form patterns, infer decisions, and its inevitable clumsiness and fragility. Its an attempt to present a world where the motivations haven’t changed; advertisers still want to sell cans of coca cola, traffic wardens are still scouting cars for parking fees; tasks that seem mundane and perhaps even repetitive enough to hand over to these flying robots. There is lot going on in the film, and we think repeated viewings might start to reveal new layers. For instance, how geofencing width might vary across buildings. Those luxurious highrises would probably afford to have a deeper geofence, whilst the lesser blessed live with narrow boundaries to protect them. In the advertising sequence, you’ll notice someone who has an ‘access denied’ block. We assume annonymity will become a luxury, an expensive service you pay for.
Video footage of a city captured from these drones is juxtaposed with our own trials and tests of building and flying them. The film aims to present the shifts in power the technology is creating, from surveillance drones to personal (insta) drones, to present a gripping experience of the messy, multilayered social and cultural narratives that are constantly being written around it.
3. THE (AIR)SPACE THEY OCCUPY
“We talk about atmosphere, stratosphere, airspace. But none of the words say much about the porousness between the rooftops and the clouds, the bit of the sky we breathe, walk through, and look out upon.” J.M Ledgerd.
Building a multirotor and getting it to fly can be complicated, but simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. But with developments in autonomous flight control software, and changing regulations, the air above our heads could get crowded, and comments like this will become increasingly common. When we talk about civic space, as a physical entity, we rarely talk about the space above our heads, partly because of the (somewhat) naive belief that the belt between our heads and airplanes is a civic space, its in the public domain. After all, we can fly kites and go paragliding. From the common law, where real property ownership extended “from the depths to the heavens” to the infamous United States v. Causby (1946) airspace, the Bernstein of Leigh v. Skyview & General (1978), and many more, ownership of airspace has become a messy battlefield.
In the US, whilst the airspace is heavily regulated by FAA, the bit above our heads up to 500 ft is also being eyed by entrepreneurs and drone companies who want to claim a slice of it. Bigger companies like Facebook and Google are already using public airspace as real estate in the high-stakes competition for domination of the Internet. In the UK too, the CAA is attempting to build granularity in its laws which at the moment are very fuzzy, but this is just where the complication begins. The CAA’s focus is purely safety. For every different aspect of the drone’s use, it seems like a different legal body will be required to take action.
As this battle for air rights takes on a new meaning thanks to civilian drones (UAVs), the countermeasures around it are fascinating too. As Parker Higgins comments, “Unlike more traditional hacking scenarios, the consequences of a drone being compromised can be both digital and physical.” We have seen incidents, especially in the US, where several drones have been shot down if found hovering above someone else’s property. Jamming, spoofing and other countermeasures to combat these aerial machines are well documented. The politics and counter-politics of being tracked, combined with some pseudo-power afforded by a jamming “smart drone”, is in some ways a tragic irony of our times.
4. NEW (INVISIBLE) INFRASTRUCTURES
The question of territoriality and airspace takes us into a bigger discussion around infrastructure that will need to be in place for these airborne machines. Whilst the network (through the drones) gets a physical form, the infrastructure to support them is vastly invisible and digital. Amazon recently asked the FAA for permission to test its Prime Air service, on the basis that they will use geo-fencing to keep the drone in an “electronic box” below 400 feet. The Phantom DJI ’s No Fly Zone system creates a curious technological and sovereignty precedent, which initially created a geo-fence that prevented the flight of all Phantoms within a 15 kilometre radius of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and has now been extended to 350 airports. And of course the recent No fly zone over Washington, and the company No Fly Zone inviting members of the public to submit their location data so they can let private drone manufacturers know that they don’t want a drone flying above their heads.
All of this opens up a can of worms. Like so much technology, thought is given to its use, yet all other repercussions and implications remain unanswered. How do we imagine this playing out? How willing are we to give our GPS locations to a private company, who can share it with whomsoever they like? In regards to geofencing, how happy are we to buy something we think we know and then find its functionality constantly change or diminish? And what about all the hundreds and thousands of home made drones that will never obey the geofencing rules laid out by private manufacturers?
This is just the start. Beyond large corporate ventures, the civilian drone industry is booming with gadget lovers buying off-the-shelf technology, DIY enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, public sector and non-governmental ventures, all investing in this technology. As all these drones take to the sky, what are the vertical, digital infrastructural capabilities that cities will need to equip themselves with? What sort of legal and regulatory and frameworks will need to be developed? This is already a contentious issue, which will only become messier unless some careful systems design is not done immediately.
Rules across the world are rapidly changing, almost every week. It’s a political and commercial negotiation between businesses and regulators, with little input from the wider public. We are very interested in this dark matter, because none of the things we have talked about above will exist if this space is not considered. We are creating (speculative) sketches and designs of this dark, invisible architecture such as flight paths, zones, geofences and weight restrictions; basically the infrastructure that would support drones to fly and how the city might be divided.
A Speculative map of the city showing flight paths, zones, charging stations and geofencing.
CREDITS AND NEXT STEPS
First and foremost we would like to thank Arts Council England for their generous support throughout this project. We would also like to thank the V&A, especially the All Of This Belongs To Youteam Kieron Long, Corinna Gardner, Rory Hyde, Kate Drummond and Jennie Llyod-Evans for inviting us to show the work.
This project has involved several exceptionally talented people over the course of the past year and its been a humbling experience to work with them.
Project Leads: Jon Ardern and Anab Jain
Design and Prototyping: Jon Flint, Jon Ardern, Dillon Froelich, Ian Hutchinson, DOME Studio
Film Script and Direction: Anab Jain
Visual Designers: Katarina Medic, Georgina Bourke
Motion Designers: Dimitris Papadimitriou, Laurence Mencé, Alexandra Fruhstorfer
Sound Designers: Sam Conran, Ian Rawes
Technologists: Jon Ardern, Dan Williams, Mike Vanis, Philipp Ronnenberg
Still Photography: Owen Richards, Jon Flint, Jon Ardern, Anab Jain
Drone Fictions: Tim Maughan
Acknowledgements: Yosuke Ushigome, David Benque, Elvira Grob, Gejin Gao, Tobias Revell, Anuradha Reddy, Sarah Gold, Lisa Shakespeare, Carolina Vallejo, Martin and Mariko.
Moving forward, we continue to look for a venue with an open space where some of our drones can fly, moving within feet of visitors, giving a visceral, tangible experience of interacting with these flying machines. Whilst the flight is not critical to our work, we do believe the tangibility of the flight experience will play a bigger role in provoking thought and reflection of the actual technology and its implications. Meanwhile we will continue to develop work in this space, expanding to include other autonomous technologies and their changing relationships to us and our lived environment.