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Drone Aviaries & Field Guides – A Conversation with Superflux

Superflux are a design and foresight consultancy and bespoke R&D lab based in London. Founded by Anab Jain and Jon Ardern in 2009, the studio produces prototypes, research, and films that are simultaneously savvy, prescient, and playful—and now they can add ‘magazine publisher’ to that list of outputs. A few weeks ago the studio announced the first edition of Superflux, a Warren Ellis-edited periodical that would mutate in medium from issue-to-issue and archive and disseminate their research. The first issue is a handsome A1 poster expanding on their recent work with drones and—intrigued by both form and content—an email discussion ensued and the duo shared a PDF of the poster for CAN to inspect.

Superflux Issue 1 is quite a pristine artifact; drawing on the correlation between a colour-coded isometric diagram on one side, and an illustrated ‘field guide’ on the other, it tasks the reader with unpacking the dense airspace of a drone-filled near future. Warren Ellis wryly frames the ascent of drones and contributor Tim Maughan zooms-in and provides nuanced backstories for ten specific models. With tales of market-driven opportunism, infrastructure, surveillance and data collection, each of these micro-narratives is a plausible sketch of how drones might inflect social interactions and culture while buzzing across cityscapes. Given the pervasive handwaving about drones in both theory and media art circles, it’s refreshing to read something delivered in a matter-of-fact tone that is invested in interrogating their potential (as a medium) rather than exploiting their quasi-alien aesthetic or fixating on quasi-legal contemporary military applications.

The first issue of Superflux is hot off the press and now shipping (you can order via the link at the bottom of this post) and to further contextualize the project, Jain and Ardern have engaged in an interview with CAN about drones, the nature of their new publishing imprint, and their work in foresight.

I love immaculate print projects as much as the next person, but I have to ask: why does a design and foresight studio launch a (non-digital) periodical in 2015?

Good question. There are several reasons, we’ve gone into some of them at length in this blog post. But to get to the heart of it—despite the continuing trend towards the digital, and possibly because of it, we wanted to create some media artifacts which cohabit our physical spaces. Previously, we have made small batches of ‘physical things’ and put them out in the world, (Atomic Seeds, Edible Cards, Tarot Cards) so its something we enjoy doing, and given the nature of our practice, it feels appropriate to experiment with the form of our publication. We find that we also spend a lot of time writing or working with writers, and we wanted to continue exploring how these relationships could develop further (also secretly, we have always been huge admirers of Archigram magazine!)

The mandate to rethink form from issue to issue reminds me of Jordan Crandall’s work with Blast in the 1990s. What are some examples of how you might experiment with your format?

Thanks for pointing us to Jordan Crandall’s work, its great. We genuinely have no idea of what the next issue might be, but that is something we find very exciting. If we were to speculate, we’d say—a new tarot card deck (as we are developing something along those lines for another project), possibly a sticker set, maybe some origami architecture?

One of the most interesting things about the first issue of Superflux is the interplay between its narrative and your Drone Aviary video. Having seen the latter first, the magazine felt like a field guide to the various drone scenarios and really flushed out my understanding of each of the use cases. Could you speak to how each medium elaborates on different aspects of the underlying research?

The project, as it was originally envisaged, and still might end up being, is a highly experiential installation, as described in the poster’s introductory text. Within the planned installation, visitors come into direct contact (well hopefully not direct contact) with a series of flying drones the field guide would serve a means of understanding each drone’s ‘motivations’ and backstory, bringing a new layer of context to the work.

Although the project as being exhibited currently at the V&A Museum is not a live installation, the drones and the film act as important companions. The film is dense and multilayered, and might require repeated viewings to really dig into it. It captures an almost feverish intensity that the cinematic medium is perfect for. Its powerful, rushed, creepy, beautiful, haunting, all the at the same time. What might be difficult to grasp in that short time, are the intentions and motivations behind each drone’s functions and behaviours.

And that where the magazine comes in. It’s our hope that the printed artifact can act as both a kind of nonlinear map in order to help orientate the viewer in the world that the film explores, and as tool for consideration of the project’s themes, within its own right. The two mediums, as always, work beautifully on their own, and as accomplices.

Superflux, Drone Infrastructure Map

One narrative element that is used in very different ways across the poster and the video is the ‘Cartographies of the Sky’ map that plots out aerial strata and demarcates related pragmatic concerns (e.g. no-fly zone geofencing around buildings). In the video we see zoomed-in animated sequences of drones traversing these ‘skyways’ and with the poster we get a more expansive overview. How exactly does this diagram work and what role did it play in your research?

The diagram is a sketch, and a constant work-in-progress. Its not so much a detailed map of our future sky, more a container for the things we will have to think about and the legislation we will have to put in place if we are going to live with drones in our cities.

Throughout the project we keep coming back to the idea of the network gaining a kind of physical autonomy, the diagram was one way of exploring this from a systems level. It was also a key aspect of our research, and has existed in one form or another since the conception of the project.

As we started researching drone technology, its limitations and potential, and then thinking about drones moving through our cities, we started mapping out what rules and infrastructure would be needed support this technology. We took inspiration from current air traffic control rules, urban traffic management and data packets moving through networks. We also considered access rights to different areas of the the city and how they might relate to access rights in a digital network.

“Cartographies of the Sky, we hope, addresses some important questions around the territoriality and control in civic airspace. How does this space work, how does it get divided … who owns the vast expanse of sky above our heads?”

As well as these more speculative explorations we also drew upon the growing number of real world example of how governments and corporations are attempting to navigate this space: Amazon recently asked the FAA for permission to test its Prime Air service, on the basis that they will use geo-fencing to keep the drone in an ‘electronic box’ below 125 metres. The Phantom DJI’s no-fly zone system creates a curious technological and sovereignty precedent, preventing the flight of all Phantoms within a 15 kilometre radius of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and of course the recent no-fly zone over Washington. The startup NoFlyZone is inviting members of the public to submit their location data so they can let private drone manufacturers know that they don’t want a drone flying above their heads.

The diagram, we hope, addresses some important questions around the territoriality and control in civic airspace. How does this space work, how does it get divided, what are the vertical, digital infrastructural capabilities that cities will need, and ultimately who owns the vast expanse of sky above our heads?

The diagram will continue to respond to the shifts and changes in legal and regulatory frameworks. In fact currently it remains impossible to make any sort of accurate diagram as the technology is such a moving target of invention.

One detail that I found quite interesting in the blurb on the ‘mailman’ courier drones details how an Amazon-like drone delivery service goes under, their fleet and infrastructure are sold in a fire sale, and then is redeployed by another company for super secure SSD drive data delivery. This scenario reads as if you are thinking several steps ahead rather one or two. Broadly speaking, how did you model each of your types of drones and their respective histories?

We headed into the project without much in depth knowledge about drones so it ended up being a long, intense process, but to summarize that process; it started, as with many of our projects, with a lot of research. Looking at the history of unmanned aerial vehicles, the state of current technical development and what is under development for the near future. We then looked at broader cultural and social trends to what other forces at play might start to intersect and influence future development.

All this was then mapped out using a variety of tools and methods to give us a solid place to start the creative process of extrapolating scenarios, a process we often call ‘futurescaping’. In this instance we also worked with a talented friend and writer, Tim Maughan, to flesh out and give life to the drone scenarios.

In parallel to this we also began working with the technology—testing, building, flying, crashing and rebuilding many different drones, drone platforms and assistive technologies. I think this is important to mention here because this process became a sort of primary research, allowing us get past much of the hype that surrounds drones and get a feel for the materiality of the technology. Where its real strengths and weaknesses lie, rather than just take the claims of those invested in the future of drone technology at face value.

The five drones that we focused our attention on explore how deeply entwined our lives have become with artificial intelligence and large scale autonomous systems, often unknowingly so. Through models and the film, we gave life to these five drones. Simultaneously we continued discussions with Tim, whose rich stories touch on their background and intent. The other five drones in the magazine are entirely Tim’s imagination and vision, and together they paint a rich picture of urban life with civilian drones.

Superflux, Drone Aviary (still)

A quarter of a way into Drone Aviary a provocation scrolls by. “Lost in the concern that the drone is an authoritarian instrument is the possibility that it might simultaneously be a democratizing tool”—is this the hypothesis at the heart of your research into drones?

I don’t think we could say its the hypothesis, but it’s certainly a point that we feel is important to make. The quote is from Benjamin Wallace-Wells’s brilliant piece “Drones and Everything After”.

One of the biggest challenge of building the drones was to figure out how they will defy gravity and actually fly. And once they do start flying, there is a complete and total collapse of the distance between us and the airspace surrounding us, as the drone becomes a new kind of disembodied prosthetic, allowing us to watch over the world with a little controller. Extreme acclivity can be exhilarating. It can make you feel both alone and unrivalled. But this can also be simultaneously terrifying, as the drone can behave erratically, either because of your own incompetency or technical failure, and can result in damage, from destroying expensive equipment to causing harm or injury to people and property.

As drones become cheaper to buy and easier to build, there will certainly be a ‘democratizing’ effect … but on the other hand, we also know that if you are not paying for it you are the product.”

Whatever the pros and cons, once you have this air-minded vantage point, you (citizens, corporations or governments) enter a position of strategic advantage and strength. A position that eludes to the magical effect of the pale blue dot, the overview effect and the change in cognitive ability. Chris Anderson says that “drones can democratize the overview effect. The scale is obviously magnitudes smaller but the principle is the same. They remind us that the truly remarkable thing is not looking up to marvel at the technology of a balloon or airplane or spaceship, it’s really what happens when you are up, and looking down.”

So if we were to think about it from this perspective, as drones become cheaper to buy and easier to build, there will certainly be a ‘democratizing’ effect, as more and more people will gain this overview effect. But on the other hand, we also know that if you are not paying for it you are the product. So as off-the-shelf drones become cheaper, as we allow them to enter our homes and our lives, these cheap, toy-like pets, could be versions of the Instadrone, allowing anyone with a smartphone to share unforgettable memories from the cloud using the Instadrone app. In this scenario, whilst its democratizing, it could also be just another instance where we use our personal data as currency in exchange for using these technologies.

Of course that is one potential scenario. There are numerous examples of how this easy to buy and use technology will change the citizen journalism, the way we access news stories, cope with disasters and treat medical emergencies. Our ambition is to show this messy, complex, ambiguous nature of the technology.

That’s a noble ambition! Congrats again on the launch of Superflux—I love it when an experimental publication comes together. Any final comments?

We want to thank Warren Ellis, Tim Maughan, Jon Flint, Sam Conran, Katarina Medic, Dillon Froelich, Alexandra Fruhstorfer, and Georgina Bourke for their great contributions to this work.

Superflux | Order Superflux Magazine, Issue 1
survelliance drone sketch

  • yratof

    I really love these – If they could be powered by solar so they charge as they’re in the air, that would make them viable as something that could sustain hours of flight, rather than 20 minutes or whatever the max flight time is.

  • it would be great if they could but solar panels don’t provide the adequate amperage right now. The batteries used on drones are high density high amperage batteries. It would probably take several hours if not days to store enough energy to get beyond the 20 min flight time. The only exception is maybe a more efficient winged aircraft, but even then it would have to be pretty large.

  • yratof

    One can dream :) – Keeping an eye on this too: https://twitter.com/solarimpulse, I know that aerodynamically, a plane style craft doesn’t need as much power as a quad, or something that uses force to fly, but it’s nice to keep track of these things