One of the ways we come to understand new technologies is through the stories. In this lecture, I’m going to examine some of the ‘dronestories’, narratives that we use to understand drones.

One of the stories we commonly tell are historical:

Following the downing of the U2 spy plane over Russia, in 1960 the US began to invest in unmanned aerial vehicles. Between 1980 and 1983 almost the height of the cold war, General Atomics began to work on the MQ-1 Predator an unmanned aerial vehicle(UAV) used primarily by the United States Air Force (USAF) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Another story we often tell is regulatory:

In October 2013, a UAV collided with Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority began an investigation and produced a series of regulations and conditions that operators must respect when flying drones.

There are conditions under which you may fly in Australia (as of October 2018):

  • You may NOT fly closer than 30m to vehicles, boats, buildings that are not on YOUR private property or you must have explicit permission from the private property owner.
  • You are NOT allowed to fly over any populated areas such as beaches, other people’s backyards, heavily populated parks or sports ovals where there is a game on.
  • You may NOT operate within a RADIUS of 5.5km of any aerodrome, airfield, airport, seaplanes taking off or landing, helicopter landing sites which may be located at hospitals, police stations or other locations that you may not be aware of. It is YOUR responsibility to find out where they are and ignorance is no defence in the court of law. (Have a look at our app RPAS LOGGER which shows you almost all these locations around Australia
  • You may ONLY operate during DAYLIGHT – NO night flying! Only in good weather and you MUST be in visual-line-of-site of the Remotely Piloted Aircraft – RPA
  • You may NOT fly above 120m.

These rules and policies are not easy to enforce or even follow, and drone flying individuals, clubs and organisations can push back for quite sometime before the government will step in. The important thing to consider with these kinds of rules and regulations is the type of discourse that is being constructed around drones and drone flying. Retailers, for example, have something to gain from promoting the idea that there are very few restrictions to drone flying.

The drone as both hero and villain depending on which narratives we choose to invest in and contribute to.

Another narrative commonly found in dronestories is the pioneer spirit:

Chris Anderson, the CEO of drone manufacturer 3D Robotics, considered today’s drones on par with the early era of Persona Computer companies of the 1970s and early 1980s, where we are still attempting to figure out what the technology is and how to best package it for personal consumption and commercial application.

However, governments may prevent that wave of innovation, by acting on an entirely different narrative: one of the lawless ‘wild’ frontier that has to be tamed and made safe. The message to this narrative is that destabilised technologies must be brought under control

Some government are going much further than just regulation toward the criminalisation of unlicensed drone use, as in Thailand where unlicensed drone pilots are disciplined and brought under control with the threat of serious jail time.

Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex

Like the internet, drones have an intimate set of close relations to and associations with the military-industrial entertainment complex, which includes the militaries of nation-states like the US, but also the industrial facilities, design and research and development organisations of companies like General Atomics, even Hollywood is contractually related to this complex, and can be seen most obviously rendered in Michael Bay films like Transformers.

The Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex is often an underlying character in dronestories because it is an ideological interface between military training and ideology, recruitment and propaganda, simulation and entertainment.  

We can see the complex in operation in video games in terms of the non-diegetic (non-narrative) elements, such as the heads-up display (HUD).

This overlay and arrangement of information, light and strategic direction,  argues Paul Virilio, produces a highly mediated perspective structuring the parameters of time, place, and space within the soldier’s experience in a permanent state of preparation and anticipation of combat (Virilio 2002, 39). Basically, this view is designed to format you as the operator, player or pilot as a soldier.

In Drone, by Adam Rothstein (Bloomsbury 2015), the drone is described as a heavy object, full of undiagnosed complications.

The drone belongs to a lineage of technological innovations that is more than a century old. A drone is an object of the skies, unlike birds and planes, the drone is the result of fantasy and science fiction, it is both “a horror and a hope”.

Rothstein’s suggests there are a number of dominant narratives that are currently being employ to talk about drones, and which structure the ways in which we can talk about them.

The definitional narrative begins with explaining what the technology is and isn’t. This is an attempt to create a boundary between one set of technologies and another set of technologies, which is useful to diagnose and regulate the roles that the technology will fill.

“The drone is an aircraft, not a car, the drone is a computer, not a remote-controlled device, the drone is a robot and not a plane.”

Is it a Drone – a UAV – a Multicopter – a Multirotor – A remote controlled device?

Another narrative that is commonly invoked to deal with the complexity of technologies, is the invention narrative, and these are the stories that are historically grounded stories about the often heroic invention: the Wright Brother invented the aeroplane; Henry Ford invented the Model T; Lance Hill invented the Hills hoist in 1945.

The important thing to remember about invention narratives is that which is left out – including all the other innovations that are produced, like the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnels but also pay attention to who is left out or included in different contexts.

Invention narratives are not far from historical narratives, which tell us that the first time a drone hit a target with a missile was in 1971.

But again it is what the historical narrative doesn’t tell us, including the fact that video technology was not good enough to spot targets effectively in the field until the 1990s and contemporary drones of today are almost nothing like these early innovations.

That brings us to contemporary narratives, these are the dronestories that replicates the patterns of history, but in terms of how we interpret the technology today.

This is where myths of technologies are found, like the myth of robots replacing human labourers because jobs are dirty, dull or dangerous, when for  the most part, robots occupy highly tailored and specific roles and are most often engineered to do that job and for the benefit of the contribution to the economic viability of the enterprises involved.

Robots don’t tend clean toilets, they assembled weld car frames and assemble microchips.

We will see drones replacing some human jobs but these are most likely to be the dangerous one, or the ones that are difficult to get to, and the ones that can be engineered to do more cheaply, safely and productively.

Dronestories are incredibly important for making sense of the human-technology interfaces, and it is with speculative narratives in science fiction, fantasy and other genres of fiction and popular cultures that we exorcise our daemons and entertain our fantasies.

We require specular narratives like colonising Mars with robots, drones and droids so that we don’t settle for Amazon delivery drones.

So we don’t just get imperial probe droids but astromechs as well.

Expressing our fears and anxieties over dystopian outcomes is fine, argues Adam Rothstein, but if want technologies to benefit us more than they cause us harm, then we have to imagine the future that we want to see come into existence. These are intentional narratives, stories that we used to justify our actions and guide development in the present.

The idea of a humanitarian drone, a drone that offers aid, not terror.

The agricultural drone, The anti-landmine drone and drone journalism.

It these types of narratives that help to direct the development of technologies, over potential harms, such as the drone that crash into the aircraft, or a stalker uses a drone to track a victims movement, or the terrorist drone delivering anthrax – we can’t predict all the consequences that we will have to address over time.

It is the social narratives that document the networked web of collective and collaborative visions and fears about drones, and it is at the level of social narratives where we can begin to assemble an understanding between the competing narratives.

Through understanding the social narratives and stories about drones, We begin to understand that when I talk about drones, I am talking about a different assemblage of socio-technical conditions than when an engineer, a journalist, a politician or a police officer talk about drones.

Because we mean different things when we talk about Drones, they also challenge our aesthetic narratives.

Drones change the aesthetic narrative of vehicles and invert the logic of the command and control functions of interfaces. Prior to the drone assemblage and the integration of remote control and autonomous programming – the best way to think about operating a vehicle was with an egocentric perspective – as the car or plane is an extension of our body –

Prior to the drone assemblage and the integration of remote control and autonomous programming – the best way to think about operating a vehicle was with an egocentric perspective – as the car or plane is an extension of our body –

But why control the drone like a satellite, why not like a role-playing game?

Typically we think of the drone as something that we are looking at, but really it is something we are inside of.

The drone is a time traveller, spanning years of history: from the first flight of the Wright brothers in 1903 to the first spy satellites that transmitted digital images in 1976, to the rollout of the next generation air-traffic control system in 2020.

The drone is a shapeshifter, changing its appearance depending on place and time and what we are using it to do: it’s been a target for training pilot, it’s been a top-secret stealth spy vehicle, and it’s been a smartphone toy.

The drone is a trickster, playing upon preconceptions and emotions, in order to manipulate our thinking even as we control it by remote.

News headlines tell of zombie drones and plans for drone terrorist attacks and government drone-hunting licenses being proposed.

The drone is a monster, capable of terrible acts.

The drone is a hero, uniting multiple technologies into shapes and functions greater than the sum of its parts.

The drone is a villain always ready to interfere, threaten, kill or spy on us.

Technologies shape the way we see the world, and drones change the way that we see the world.  As the technology is improved, adapted and expanded, the untangling of the narrative will continue, with the drone and with any technology that finds itself in an important debate in our society: like Uber, like the Google Self Driving Car and Virtual Reality.

The drone is very interesting specular technology and it offers a chance in perspective in the way with interact through technology and the data that it collects, as well as the technologies physical presence and operation.

Drones – at their current level of technology – allow us to observe large swaths of ground for an extended period of times, both CCTV and Satellites and their imagery have particular advantages for different surveillance and reconnaissance tasks.

It has become a trope to talk about drone operation as if it were a video game. This is because the video game replicates a reality that is separate from reality, otherwise, describe as being virtual – a virtual space denotes a difference that is not completely estranged from our notions of real space.

The drone puts the human in an interesting cybernetic relationship with the ground, the air and the movement between objects.



%d bloggers like this: