Our domestic skies are increasingly abuzz with the gentle hum of the drone. The incursions of these small, malleable aerial robots span an array of commercial, civilian, and recreational applications; they are mechanical performers acting in multiple roles, from image and video capture to inspection and surveying to transport and delivery. Even as they are deployed and trialed on these terms, drones are discursively bound to an envisioned future, one prophesizing that omni-capable remote aircraft will permeate, saturate, and harmoniously occupy domestic airspaces (Jackman 2016). Across these mobilizations, the domestic drone is recurrently referred to as an “eye in the sky,” an adage popularized across media, industry, and academic commentary. Pushing off from this entrenched descriptor, this reflection calls for a reconsideration of the drone as a more-than-optic sensory platform.
Consider, for example, the emergency-service drone: a tool in the arsenal of a growing number of global police forces. The law-enforcement drone is lauded as a portable, rapidly deployable assistant serving its officer and as a distinct capability offering a “sporadic and punctual” mobility affording a more-than-human “ability to see and visualize” (Klauser and Pedrozo 2015, 287) terrains, objects, and populations. First and foremost equipped with daylight cameras providing officers with an aerial view of a scene (a vehicular crash, for instance, or a crowd), the drone’s optical capabilities are increasingly accompanied by “more-than-visual” (Garrett and McCosker 2017, 16) sensor payloads.
Elsewhere in this series, Helga Tawil-Souri explores the electromagnetic spectrum as a territory: alive and active, managed and contested. In this vein, the domestic drone is a spectrum-reliant technology. One police-based manifestation of this is the addition of the infrared sensor. While the drone’s daylight camera relies on the visible-light portion of the spectrum, such alternative sensor payloads act through and render visible nonvisible portions of the spectrum. Deployed in low-light operations, the infrared-equipped police drone is used to locate errant individuals (whether missing persons or fleeing suspects) and objects (e.g., marijuana plants), functioning through the detection of emitted heat radiation. Sensing spatial volumes as such, the drone readily and flexibly enables a form of technopolicing practice predicated upon detection. In pursuit, for example, the multispectral drone relates first to an individual’s bodily surface and interior: detecting the emissions of the temperature regulation function of the hypothalamus. Questions thus emerge around sensorially apprehending the body as such: police drones produce a particular picture in which sensed bodies are subsequently rendered into “indistinct morphologies” (Parks 2014, 2519).
Thinking further with sensing drones, we might turn to another (anticipated) manifestation of the future drone city: delivery drones. Trialed and developed in parallel by global corporations including Amazon, Alibaba, Google, and DHL, drones as small-scale transport and delivery platforms are touted as “last-mile” innovations. While questions can and should be asked about the multiple (conflicting) envisionings of airspace management therein, approaching the delivery drone as a sensing device opens up different questions around lines of sight. For example, by delving into recently published patents, we learn that Amazon’s delivery drones will include scanners designed to record and collect data en route, data subsequently used to inform tailored advertisements for the parcel’s recipient. In addition to comprising a sensorially attuned form of contextual targeting, such a practice raises questions for a spectrum-conscious privacy politics. In this iteration, the drone is more than an eye in the sky watching a scene; it is also fitted with a range of more-than-optic sensors and so-called output devices including microphones and two-way communication features. Amazon’s drone thus optically and sensorially apprehends domestic locales, as well as communicating with them. Another Amazon patent outlines a redesigned warehouse equipped with drone docking, to be located in and designed to serve “dense urban settings.” Thinking again with wavelengths, this structure, abuzz with electric charges and sonic emissions of mobile drones, prompts questions of spatialized service geometries: privileged service for, and impactful on, whom?
Drawing together these readings of the sensing and sensed drone, critical questions can be raised around the wavelengths and registers that are mobilized, experienced, and contested in such (envisioned) drone domestications. Furthermore, while they rely on the spectrum, drones are simultaneously vulnerable to it, as evidenced by the growing range of counter-measures seeking to disrupt drone functioning. Spectrum terrains are open to repurposing and contestation, a multiple and fractal situation at once emitted and omitted from imaginings of the future drone city.
In light of calls to interrogate the “new ways of monitoring and control” (Klauser and Pedrozo 2015, 287) that the domestic drone enlivens, such interventions should extend beyond the optical limitations of the analytically inadequate eye in the sky motif. As we consider domestic drone futures, we should think both with and beyond the anticipated surveillance configurations of, say, the swarm, reframing emergent questions of “intimate and invasive forms of . . . power” (Shaw 2016, 21) to apprehend alternative registers, terrains, and relationalities of the intimate: those increasingly scanned and sensed. There is, after all, more to the drone than (meets) the eye.
Garrett, Bradley, and Anthony McCosker. 2017. “Non-Human Sensing: New Methodologies for the Drone Assemblage.” In Refiguring Techniques in Digital Visual Research, edited by Edgar Gómez Cruz, Shanti Sumartojo, and Sarah Pink, 13–23. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jackman, Anna H. 2016. “Rhetorics of Possibility and Inevitability in Commercial Drone Tradescapes.” Geographica Helvetica 71, no. 1: 1–6.
Klauser, Francisco, and Silvana Pedrozo. 2015. “Power and Space in the Drone Age: A Literature Review and Politico-Geographical Research Agenda.” Geographica Helvetica 70, no. 4: 285–93.
Parks, Lisa. 2014. “Drones, Infrared Imagery, and Body Heat.” International Journal of Communication 8: 2518–21.
Shaw, Ian G. R. 2016. “The Urbanization of Drone Warfare: Policing Surplus Populations in the Dronepolis.” Geographica Helvetica 71, no. 1: 19-28.