Drones & the fabric of everyday life

While works such as those by Bridle and Fast have helped bring concerns about drone warfare into the public eye, an entirely different species of drone has evolved around commercial applications and hobby. Described in the QUICK START area, these small multicopters can claim as much kinship with the RC hobby tradition and growing movement in DIY technology as with the military aircraft that share their name. However, their usefulness as surveillance tools and the ease with which, once equipped with a camera, they can be used to spy and record, has raised concerns much closer to home – concerns about their integration into the very fabric of life in a modern world.

As the popularity of drones has increased, academics and observers of media have responded to this home-grown insecurity. A key participant is the Centre for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, established in 2012, and with an excellent portal of contemporary and historical resources. Drones have been the focus of much informed discussion – how will these screens in the sky, once integrated in our cities and even personal lives, affect daily existence in the very near future? The concerns are not merely hypothetical. Amazon claims to be in the process of testing drones that can ‘deliver packages in less than 30 minutes’. The Google Wing project developed at Google X – the company’s secretive research incubator – aims to develop drones for disaster relief and emergency medical care.

Elsewhere, the number of licensed commercial drone operators in the US and UK is already increasing rapidly. In the UK, there are almost 600 licensed operators; in the US, the Federal Aviation Authority is granting about 250 a month, a 14-fold increase from the numbers just four months earlier. The types of companies and sectors interested in commercial applications are also broadening in scope, to include insurance and real estate companies wanting to inspect roofing, architectural and archaeological operators using drones for surveying sites, and hospitals wishing to send medical supplies to rural clinics.

As academics have joined in debate, artists have joined with creative responses.  An increasing number of artworks explore our uneasy relationship with these multiplying invaders.

Superflux’s ‘Drone Aviary’ installation at the V&A (spring/summer 2015), for example, introduced a fictional family of 5 drones, including Madison, an advertising drone that uses facial scans to show targeted advertising, and Newsbreaker, a story-producing drone that filters news in real time. The installation, and accompanying essay, subtly ask the question: who will control the space above our heads? (For a full description of the origin and production of ‘Drone Aviary’, please see Case Studies.)

Artist Adam Harvey and designer Johanna Bloomfield launched  Privacy Gift Shop  in London, featuring a range of  ‘drone-proof’ hoodies, hats, scarves, and burkas in metallic fabric that blocks thermal-imaging surveillance. The installation has since toured to several galleries internationally.

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Harvey and Bloomfield’s ‘Drone-proof Hoodie’.

Rajeev Basu created a web-based collaborative artwork called Drones of New York which opens with this simple statement: ‘On September 30th, 2015 – widespread commercial drone use will begin in the US.’ In the online work, a dozen designers create their vision of a New York under control of drones of all shapes, kinds and sizes.

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Spotted around Chinatown: This 100% authentic luxury drone is now available at a discount price.
Saiman Chow, 2013.

These are just some of the diverse ways in which artists are responding to the rise of the drone. See also our collaboration with the Royal College of Art’s MA in Design Interactions, which asked the designers of the future to imagine how drones might integrate with everyday existence – we’ve shared the Lesson Plan to help inspire further explorative projects.

Next page in toolkit: The artist as participant in the future of the drone