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Drone City: how unmanned drones will change urbanism for the better

As legislation struggles to keep pace with an explosion of unmanned aircraft, the drone is changing ideas of privacy, transport and creativity

France’s World Cup team was recently subjected to a pitch invasion by a species previously reserved for science fiction. Comic, with an affectation of mild peril, are the media reports of the hapless fan-drone sent to ogle overpaid sportsmen having a training kick-about, and yet, despite attempts to shrug off its significance, the city will be changed forever by this technology.

On battlefields in the last 15 years, unmanned aerial vehicles have unleashed a devastating rewriting of military ethics and practice, dramatically changing notions of geography and justice. Now DIY electricians, code tinkerers, as well as the research and development muscle of Amazon are primed to radically reframe domestic urbanism. Drones like the Toy Parrot AR, the DJI Phantom of World-Cup infamy or the ‘heavy-lifting’ Altura Zenith, are the early birds in a flock of affordable flying gadgets you can own, and with these follow an attendant wealth of specifically architectural problems and opportunities.

Amazon's marketing campaign suggested drones might be used to deliver parcels in the near future. While clearly a PR stunt, increasingly creative uses for unmanned aircraft will certainly affect movement in the city.

Unmanned, app-enabled, levitating devices, should provoke architectural practioners to anticipate that surveillance, cargo logistics, terrorism, personal privacy and the diagram of the city will become spatialised in exponentially more complex ways. Former understandings of thresholds, barriers, overlookings, windows and enclosure become anachronistic in the path of such airborne agents. And so, urban design will be bent to both accommodate and resist a new breed of aerial urbanite, as previously the car sculpted an unfamiliar urban grain, so drones will in three dimensions.

If all of this seems a little hyperbolic, consider on the one hand the severity of prosecutions pursued by the US Federal Aviation Administration regarding prohibiting drone flights without extensive licencing. The agency recently attempted to fine a film-maker $10,000, as they had used a drone to produce a promotional video for Virginia University, although the case was thrown out of court. Consider also calls from privacy activists for ‘drone-free’ cities. These cases intimate something of the spatial-legal battles that will be fought in the next few years – a great deal of civic liberty and metropolitan delight is at stake on this question.

Aviary

An early rendering of Superflux’s Drone Aviary at the V&A for the London Design Festival

From the appearance of their early renderings, V&A’s planned Drone Aviary for the London Design Festival sets forth to brand this emerging phenomenon in an emphatically positive light, as you might expect from such a temple of ocularcentricity with a catalogue of autonomous objects and a current fascination for disobedient artefacts. A drone is the quintessential design object: fetishised and autonomous. We can hope the V&A’s exhibition might bring a critical edge, a measured warning about the risk posed to freedom by the invasion, but then perhaps not, the world is already full of naysayers. Overshadowed by military siblings, civilian drones quietly offer boundless and largely uncelebrated potential for creative production.

The drone is best understood as the incarnate extension of expectations, possibilities and assumptions nurtured in the digital and virtual environment of the internet, realised in a physical form which engages with life outside. The algorithmically enabled modes of locating data that we so take for granted in a virtual environment become physical in their application to mapping, in the passive consumption of geospatial data through Google Street View, or by simulation in Building Integrated Modelling. But by drones, this interaction becomes productive and reciprocal as the digital is enabled to modify and manufacture spatial experiences, directly completing a two-way blurring of the digital and the physical.

Read another way, drones promise a positive return of enchantment and the aedicule to architecture. As John Summerson considered the Gothic mind to be populated by angels and faeries, so a world with animate digital objects gives rise to not only drone aviaries, but all the nooks, nests, portals and docking stations needed to facilitate this infrastructure.

Reflecting upon the objects themselves, Raffaello D’Andrea speaks of drones as ‘athletic’. In a TED lecture he coaxes three quadcopters into delicate balletic cooperative manoeuvres, gliding and alighting responsively. As he conducts these acrobatics, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre aerators come to mind, Wright hoped the future was elegant and automated and airborne. His hope is still held by many, yet in his case this technologically fascinated vision has borne the fruit of a decadent suburban spatiality, the very convenience of speed designed to eliminate distance has robbed the city of that quality of the in-between and pleasure of the journey. In our present period of upheaval it behoves designers to navigate wisely around various unintended consequences of this spectacular technology.

George Brant’s recent play Grounded presents a number of such unintended consequences in an oblique but powerful critique of drone warfare. Allowing the tragedy of conflict deaths to speak for themselves, the narrative is concerned primarily to viscerally conjure the banality of piloting a military drone, a vocation in ‘Playstation warfare’ denies any capacity for even responsible heroism. The play illustrates that drones render their pilots in their own image, and for the protagonist, the world back home begins to take on the impersonal grey flat quality of the mediated reality she is engaged in on her shifts controlling this eye in the sky.

We might mourn the extinction of the last remaining Postman Pats at the hands of Indian call-centre-operated skybots, there yet a greater and more immediate threat to the pleasure of the city. Patrick Stewart in Cannes initated the phenomenon of the ‘dronie’, which is a birds-eye selfie made possible by these propellored slaves. A slew of recent kickstarter campaigns for drones as action sports accessories, suggest a time will soon be upon us where the city, even more than now, is a vast and lonely theatre for narcissists.

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