Drones are increasingly infiltrating our airspace. But what does that mean for us?
Imagine a future where drones are as common as birds. Would you be ready for it? That's the question raised by Drone Aviary, an installation created by design studio Superflux that features five civilian drones suspended from the ceiling of the V&A museum in London.
" Drone Aviary asks what kind of space these drones will inhabit. It asks what zones they will fly in, and how will they occupy the airspace around us," Anab Jain, the co-founder and director of Superflux, told Motherboard as she gestured to Madison, an advertising drone with neon screens; Nightwatchman, a surveillance UAV with infrared vision; RouteHawk, a traffic control drone; Newsbreaker, a media drone; and FlyCam Instadrone, a personal use drone.
Superflux's drones are part of the 'Civic Objects' display within the V&A's All of This Belongs to You exhibition, which brings together an assortment of contemporary objects from the public realm. The drones are juxtaposed alongside Cody Wilson's 3D printed gun and an umbrella from the Occupy Hong Kong movement. "We're happy that our work is in this space as we're asking a lot of political and social questions about what it would mean to live with drones," noted Jain.
The initial idea was for the drones to fly through the gallery space and interact with visitors, and Superflux are currently working on a future outdoor installation. But given the listed nature of the building, and the extent of the prized artifacts on display, the Superflux team have had to make do with a static showing. As we crossed the lower gallery, Jain pointed up at the drones—which hang almost directly above a bronze Grecian statue—recalling how negotiating the positioning was a challenge in itself.
But while Superflux's drones are currently dormant, co-founder and designer Jon Ardern insists that "they're very much alive", their presence in the aviary implying that the drones are quasi living "urban animals" of the city. "Even though they're not living things in the traditional sense of the word, they're slightly different from the machines of old. They do have a sense of autonomy, and understand their environment and make decisions," said Ardern.
It is a concept that the design studio is keen to explore as drones increasingly infiltrate our city's ecosystems and everyday lives.
With the commercial drone market expected to be worth up to $1.27 billion by 2020, drones have become a major area of investment. They have increasingly infiltrated both personal, commercial and military spheres, and their applications range from Amazon's delivery drones to hurricane-hunting quadrocopters. Even citizen journalists cover events now using livestreaming drones.
But their growing popularity has also spurred discussions regarding regulation and legislation. A report released in March 2015 by a committee of the UK's House of Lords recommended that commercial drones be registered on an online database. In October 2014, regulations for privacy were also explored through the possible implementation of drone license plates. In the US, the Federal Aviation Authority announced in March 2015 that drone videos could not be posted on YouTube, and in December 2014, a New York City council member pushed to introduce legislation that would ban drones in the city.
In collaboration with writer Tim Maughan, and through their "drones-eye-view" film, which explores the place that UAVs will occupy in a futuristic "smart city", Superflux aim to couch the debate around drones within an artistic narrative. Maughan's stories give each drone a personable identity to which people can relate, while Superflux's short film aims to raise questions about the implications of living side-by-side with these flying machines.
It also aims to portray a realistic impression of the difficulty of operating drones given the technological blips which can occur mid-flight, and the ever-changing regulations and rules which surround their usage.
"You can find a lot of drone videos online showing machines flying smoothly through the city. But the reality is never the slick vision that you see on Youtube. Things interfere with GPS signals and parts misbehave, so we wanted to get the sense of it, and include that in the film," said Ardern.
As drone technologies and flight capabilities improve on a weekly basis, opportunities for drones to combine with anything from social media to advertising becomes more likely. "The idea is to explore what happens when drone technology penetrates the world and starts to collide with business concerns," said Ardern, who has contemplated a future in which drones rigged up to a social network in this current work. "Madison [the advertisement drone] mimics the relationship that we have with Facebook. To some people it feels like the devil's bargain as you get to connect with people, but at the same time you're giving over levels of privacy. There might be a side whereby drones start collecting your data and selling in to advertisers."
Throughout the project, Superflux have found themselves entrenched within the legal and regulatory worlds associated with drone usage. Yet instead of shying away from the red-tape, they assert they've looked for ways to reflect their experience with it in their art. As the drive to make cities "smart" increases, our relationship with the machinery that surrounds us, as well as the environment is in flux.
"We always think of the airspace as ours, but in the future it may belong to different companies," said Jain. "We are interested in the messy worlds that technologies create. But rather than polarising the debate by saying drones are either good or bad, we wanted to raise the questions about the cultural, ethical and moral implications."
"People think that drones are either good or bad, but technologies don't exist in silos," said Ardern. "The truth emerges from an ambiguous space."