Assistant Professor of Expanded Media Art, Studio Art Department
Connecticut College, New London, CT
Last weekend was rather warm in Chicago, and such weather is not a given this time of year. We looked out at the blue sky, the sunny street, the trees waving in the gentle breeze, and decided it was nice enough to take the drone out for a walk. It did well at first, not pulling too hard on the leash, leading us down the street and past the crosswalk, seeing for itself, staying afloat at eye level or below, and moving ahead using its four small rotors. Eventually it started getting unstable in the brisk wind. Attempting to stabilize itself, it whirled around, buzzing inches from my face, and started rising into the sky, seeming to almost drag its owner up with it. A friend who was with us remarked that a pet drone is like a kite in reverse. The leash certainly comes in useful.
Google Trends shows an exponential increase in the first few months of 2013 in searches for the word “drone” an increase that becomes even more pronounced when it is combined with a search for the word “domestic.”  Apparently, domestic drones are a subject urgent enough for a U.S. senator to address for thirteen straight hours on the Senate floor, as Rand Paul did in March of 2013. Drones have finally made it into the mainstream as a contemporary socio-political concern.
In this text, I will use a wide and non-technical interpretation of the term “drone.” I will approach the term “drone” as any type of moving, often flying, sensing, and automated unmanned machine with a degree of autonomy. Acronyms for drones abound, with UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) has been the most common, until a recent shift to UAS (Unmanned Aerial System).
The key lens through which public media, from news programs to artists, has viewed drones until recently, drew largely upon the undeclared war waged by the US and its allies in the Middle East. There are major unresolved issues with how these wars are conducted, the first being that they are not even acknowledged as such by our leaders: between 2004 – 2013 the US is estimated to have killed via covert drone strikes as many as 3,581 people in Pakistan, a country that the US is not even officially at war with.  More recently, a series of developments and a general saturation of publicly available information have combined to result in mainstream outlets, from Time to National Geographic, all ‘discovering’ that drones are actually much more than Predators and Switchblades doing our dirty work in a distant country. Such sources now report that these machines come in all shapes and sizes, that they are “already here,” and their numbers are increasing fast. In early 2013, the government instructe the US Federal Aviation Authority to come up with new regulations in order to allow as many as 30,000 drones of various sizes to take to the US skies by 2015. Most of the sites authorized by the FAA for drone operation are home for the larger, more complex breed of Unmanned Aerial Systems, being either academic or commercial research facilities, or police, transportation and rescue departments.  New training programs are popping up at an exponential rate, with institutions like the University of North Dakota now offering a bachelors degree in Unmanned Aerial System operation. 
Alongside this more established trajectory of “professional” drones, a silent explosion in small, cheap and truly domestic drones is taking place, with communities forming around ‘toy’ drones such as the smartphone controllable AR.Drone 2.0, as well as hobbyists and enthusiasts developing open source UAVs, with DIY Drones’ Chris Anderson as a “poster boy” and unofficial spokesperson. New initiatives have been appearing at a rapid pace, ranging from taco-delivering micro-drones (a hoax, for now), to a physical network of quadrocopters delivering medical supplies to remote villages in Africa, to multiple semi-professional drone platforms directed at the cinematography crowd. A recent product announcement by the San Francisco-based “Always Innovating” company promised a palm sized, semi autonomous nanocopter-camera that hovers around you as it shoots and broadcasts a constant stream of your life, with you as the main star. This is a real product aptly named the MeCam, and projected to cost around $50 when it arrives in a year or two.  Artists are rapidly responding to the drone boom and making drone related and based work, a few notable examples being Jordan Crandall, Ricardo Dominguez, Alex Rivera and James Bridle. The former two have also organized a yearlong series of events under the title “Drones at Home” at the University of California San Diego, where they teach. 
People have for a very long time used technology to extend their bodies, senses and minds via prosthetics, from pencils to cars, and have only recently begun to understand the human-machine symbiosis as a single cybernetic system.  Until now, such body extensions have been mostly localized at the same place as the body itself, expanding its reach but not cutting the umbilical cord of physical proximity. The two major exceptions to this have been telecommunication technology, which created the phenomena of telepresence, and automation technology, which created robots able to function fully or semi autonomously. Yet even when considering these transformative exceptions, it seems that at least in the domestic sphere, such technologies were again, until very recently, mostly stationary and isolated, producing bodies that are disconnected – a voice and a video face on a screen, a robot in a factory or at home, following the contours of your living room, vacuuming dust. These are, in a way, two opposite ends of a spectrum: a disembodied, disconnected telepresence on the one hand, and a physical prosthesis on the other.
The arrival of smartphones provided a tangible, miniaturized, mobile body, wrapped around the projection of a voice, a face – the Internet. The apparatus of mass production behind the smartphone deluge provided cheap miniaturized electronics such as processors, radios, sensors and cameras. The next logical step then, was to enable this so-called smart platform to mobilize itself on its own and truly combine physical independence with telepresence. All the essential components of a drone were there and so all that was left was to make some minor modifications, slap some motors on, and let it fly.
The ecology of bodies and senses that are inhabited and delineated by drone technologies and our interactions with them form a sphere of influence, a “Dronosphere.” Drone technologies have spawned an entire ecosystem of machines: from minuscule coin sized mechanical flies, to birdlike flappers, to a 400 foot autonomous wing that can stay afloat for 5 years.  Each of these may be equipped with any number of readily available sensors, using technologies as diverse as thermal imaging, 3D laser scanning, “see-through-walls” radar and many more. There are drones that fly, crawl, walk and swim. Drones that may act autonomously and others that are fully remote controlled. The list goes on – taking on more and more of the diversity and characteristics of an organic ecosystem. 
Drone technologies are in fact not limited to what we would normally define as drones. Many of the same core concepts used to extend the capabilities of mechanical drones are in fact also in use as human extensions: small modular engines become a body worn jet wing; a ring of cameras and sensors becomes a 360 vision battlefield helmet, or a fighter pilot’s heads up display, which in turn relates to the soon-to-come consumer product Google Glasses, that corporation’s latest foray into augmented reality vision.
For the purpose of this discussion, the Dronosphere includes an equal mix of human and drone elements, immersed in a constantly shifting cloud of drone technologies, enhancing and evolving a common set of attributes: body, motion, sensing, autonomy, locative capacity, and so on. I explore and critique this ecology of enhancement in my recent project I wanna be your drone in which I ride my bicycle through a city, producing a subjective, fragmented video-panorama in a manner similar to that of the Google Streetview Van, itself a somewhat more human-driven version of the aerial surveillance drone. In this case I adopt the mannerism of a remotely driven vehicle, being directed in my riding by an audience of locals situated at the other side of the city, the audience shouts instructions and tells me stories, opinions and memories about my surroundings via phone. As they do so, they hear my voice and see the results of my live video mapping projected on a building in front of them. This audience serves as a swarm-like Human-GPS to my Human-Drone, both companions to the Occupy movement’s Human-Microphone.
Much like computer-processing algorithms, or even forms of government, any of the attributes defining the Dronosphere may shift from being completely centralized, to fully distributed, vaporized into a cloud. A drone system may be comprised of a singular body, or of multiple elements acting together, otherwise known as a swarm. The most recent examples of drone-swarms include the choreographic antics of the GRASP laboratory’s acrobatic quadrocopter teams, which fly through hoops and perform tricks in expensive galas in Europe.  Another swarm of micro-drones equipped with glowing LED spheres was recently used to demonstrate a three dimensional spatial display in the sky above Linz, Austria, assuming positions in space identical to those of the 3D pixels in their computer control software. The creators of these flying dots of light dubbed them Spaxels (spatial pixels), their behavior eerily evocative of a group of synchronized dancers in the manner of Busby Berkeley. 
A system may be distributed in terms of bodily motion and location, as in the case of Matternet, briefly mentioned earlier. This company promotes a literal “ internet of things” in which a network of drone-launching centers covers regions of the world in which roads are poorly maintained and people are in need of rapidly delivered small packets of goods, such as pharmaceuticals. The packets are conveyed in relay between these stations, similarly to information packets transmitted via internet TCP/IP protocols.
Sensing may also be distributed: computational photography researchers have for the last couple of decades been constructing massive camera arrays, capable of seeing a single scene from multiple overlapping angles, or spreading out around it to absorb a composite light field image of the subject, a special form of computational photography which combines the images of numerous cameras spread around a subject into a multifocal image resembling a blurry fly’s eye view.  At a recent conversation regarding ideal forms of vision that science aspires to, an imaging scientist shared with me his concept of an ideal camera. The camera would be a piece of sensitive tissue cloth comprised of a mesh of flexible pixels that one could physically wipe the subject of a photo with to acquire all of its multi-dimensional detail. A swarm of drones may act as if it were that piece of cloth, wrapping itself around its subject of interest to sense and visually “digest” it. A swarm of people armed with cameras may do so as well, as demonstrated by crowd sourced news reporting and recent research in composite, crowd constructed panoramas. 
In my 2010 piece Cut Stories I asked a group of participants to sit in a circle resembling a support group, telling stories of personal injuries. As they did so, an outer circle of camerapersons, comprising a swarm of hand held cameras, surrounded them. As the stories in the inner circle were being told, I choreographed the outer group via an array of screens at the perimeter of the room, displaying choreographic commands such as “walk clockwise” or “move closer,” keeping their subjects in the frame so that the swarm’s composite, panoptic view of the event was maintained.
Drone technology, as it manifests in our daily mobile practice, not only affects how we see the world, it also manipulates and controls our physical movements within it. Consider the mundane action of shooting a digitally assisted photo or video on a current smartphone or point-and-shoot camera. The Apple iPhone’s Panorama Mode literally choreographs the shooter as they attempt to trace an arc through their surroundings in order to capture a panorama, going beyond simple automation and smile-detection to issuing directorial commands such as: “move down,” “move right,” or “too fast.” Compare the way you used to navigate a city a decade ago, to how you do it now – these days I often jump headlong into the street, trusting myself to the firm but forgiving voice of my GPS navigator, sometimes even following its instructions when they are obviously absurd, such as looping full circle around where I could have just turned, or driving down roads which have yet to be built. This is a great example of the trajectory we are on towards a Vision Machine as described by Paul Virilio.  a seeing machine that takes humans out the loop by simply being too fast and efficient for them to respond: yes, I can make a decision to not follow the GPS at any point, but I am often too constrained, going too fast for it to be practical – I become a passive follower of its commands out of sheer convenience and in so doing, I become the body of a drone, as it possesses me.
A different aspect of this emerging Dronosphere has been the cultural response to the symbolic nature of drone technology. Much ink has been spilled writing about machines and desire, libidinal urges and technology. Drone technology obviously pushes many of these buttons, combining a deeply felt and often justified robo-phobia with an intense robo-desire, a paranoia of surveillance with the eternal urge to fly, to leave one’s body and take to the sky. As discussed, drones are not new. Most or all of the technologies comprising them have been around for a while, but on their own have provoked far less of a visceral reaction than their collective sum. The drone is something more than a machine – it is a symbol, holding a deeply mythological and even religious resonance. The signs are all over the place: the biggest, baddest drone technologies are often named after mythological figures, from Argus, the hundred-eyed titan, currently the name of a new drone-mounted camera array able to see, record and track an area the size of a medium city, to Odin, father of the Norse gods who would send his two ravens out into the world to spy on his behalf, gripping his eyeballs in their claws, apparently “transmitting” images back to him. These ravens, Hugin and Munin, are now the namesakes for the backpack sized Raven drone, recently carried by troops who participated in Taskforce ODIN in Iraq (the acronym stands for Observe Detect Identify Neutralize). Last but not least in these examples of military theology is the Marine air to ground laser targeting system nicknamed The Light of God.
I believe there is something more to these naming choices than mere esoteric military machismo. After all, for as long as we can tell, people have been dreaming of projecting their essence into the world and flying free, with or without their physical body: this encompasses anything from astral projection to transcendental meditation. For just as long, there have been myths of flying beings, inhuman but able to communicate, all seeing and terrible in their wrath, serving a higher power or constituting one themselves: this could be anything from angels to spirits to demons and a host of other supernatural beings. Considering all of the above, I propose that the Dronosphere, being a product of humanity, is just as much about theology, mythology and even religion as it is about technology and politics.
In fact, there is apparently at least one drone enthusiast already actively preaching his love of Jesus and drones, arguably the world’s first RC Minister (a term used in passing by a visitor to his website, with the letters RC standing for Remote Control, as in RC cars or RC planes). Here are some quotes from his personal online testimony:
“Our bodies of flesh are just broken vehicles. I am my soul, I am not my flesh. I am currently the pilot of a broken vehicle.” Closely followed by “As we fly FPV  we can temporarily place ourselves (Our souls) into a different type of body.” 
This essay is not an attempt to present conclusions. Instead I seek to call for critical exploration and engagement with the entirety of this emergent drone ecology. It is an inherently embodied and human one, in all of its complex diversity: there are burning issues to be confronted regarding regulation and control, but alongside these concerns I believe that we must challenge and understand the messy mixed reality sphere that drone and human bodies co-inhabit, the increasingly blurring boundaries between them, and the deeper currents underlying this process of transformation and mutation, symbolism and belief.
It seems to me as if we’re living at the age in which the digital world is literally learning to walk, or more precisely, to fly – and it could use a lot of guidance, not necessarily from the Light of God, but perhaps instead from the Angel of History. 
1. “Drone” and “domestic drones” on Google Trends, accessed April 1 2013, http://www.google.com/trends
2. Based on data gathered by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, accessed April 1 2013, http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2012/07/02/resources-and-graphs/
3. See a map of FAA authorized UAS sites in the US as obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, accessed April 1 2013, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/02/faa-releases-new-list-drone-authorizations-your-local-law-enforcement-agency-map
4. UND official website, accessed April 1 2013, http://aviation.und.edu/ProspectiveStudents/Undergraduate/uasops.aspx
5. The following all accessed April 1 2013: TacoCopter, http://tacocopter.com/; Matternet, http://matternet.us/; Always Innovating MeCam, http://www.alwaysinnovating.com/products/mecam.htm
6. UCSD Visual Arts Department website, accessed April 1 2013, http://visarts.ucsd.edu/~gd2/event/drones-home
7. Norbert Weiner, Cybernetics: Or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1961)
8. The following all accessed April 1 2013: Robobees project page in Harvard School of Engineering website, http://robobees.seas.harvard.edu/; Festo SmartBird on the Festo Corporate website, http://www.festo.com/cms/en_corp/11369.htm; Solar Eagle project at Boeing website, http://boeing.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=43&item=1425
9. For a more in depth discussion of evolutionary paradigms in technological development, see: Kevin Kelley, What Technology Wants (USA: Penguin, 2010)
10. See Memo Akten and GRASP Lab’s drone performance extravaganza at the Saatchi & Saatchi 2012 New Directors Showcase, Memo Akten’s Studio website, accessed April 1 2013, http://marshmallowlaserfeast.com/82985/760451/home/saatchi-saatchi-nds-meet-your-creator-2012
11. “Spaxels / Klangwolke – Quadrocopter” under “Projects” in Ars Electronica Futurelab website, accessed April 1 2013, http://www.aec.at/futurelab/en/referenzen/kategorie/kunst-am-bau/spaxels-klangwolken-quadrocopter/
12. Stanford Lightfield Camera Array website, accessed April 1 2013, http://lightfield.stanford.edu/
13. Mobicast crowd-sourced real time video panorama project, official Microsoft Research website, accessed April 1 2013, http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/projects/mobicast/
14. Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994)
15. FPV: acronym for First Person View, refers to flying a drone using a head mounted display that let’s you see what it sees
16. Jake Wells, “My Testimony,” on his official website Fleshpilot.com, accessed April 1 2013, http://www.fleshpilot.com/?page_id=306
17. “The Angel of History” is a metaphorical entity described by Walter Benjamin in his “Ninth Thesis on the Concept of History”, in: Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4; Volumens 1938-1940, eds Michael William Jennings, Howard Eiland (Harvard University Press, 1996), p 392
Nadav Assor is an interdisciplinary media artist, creating videos, installations, performances, and objects. His work deals with the performed mediation of cities, bodies and personal narratives via military-industrial technologies. Nadav is a recipient of multiple awards and grants in the US and in Israel. He has exhibited internationally in festivals, music venues, museums and galleries in North America, Israel, Europe and China. He has recently shown at the 2013 Berlin Director’s Lounge, the 2012 Transmediale and European Media Arts Festival, the Soundwave Biennial at the Lab in San Francisco and Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, where he presented an installation for the center’s 80 foot video facade. Nadav holds an MFA in Art & Technology from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2010, Full Merit Fellowship), where he has also taught in the past. Nadav is an Assistant Professor of Expanded Media in Connecticut College, New London, CT. He lives and works in Chicago and Connecticut.