Aperture Magazine

The magazine of photography and ideas

The Air for All: An Introduction to The Drone Primer

An excerpt from the Center for the Study of the Drone's newly released Drone Primer.

 - November 7, 2014

The Center for the Study of the Drone introduces its compendium The Drone Primer this weekend, with a launch event on Saturday at Wendy’s Subway, 722 Metropolitan, Brooklyn, starting at 8pm. The launch will feature a multimedia aerial installation by the drone-flying art duo Tushev Aerials, featured in the slideshow above. Below, an excerpt from the chapter “The Air for All,” featured in the book. 

The first aerial photograph was made in 1858 by the artist and critic Nadar, who used a balloon of his own invention to fly eighty meters above the French village of Petit-Becetre. Nadar’s artistic and somewhat bohemian leanings belied a more utilitarian motive: three years earlier, he had patented the idea of photographic mapping, and the following year he was proposing to take photographs for the French Army during its campaign in Italy. Flying with a camera wasn’t easy (Nadar had to install a miniature darkroom in the balloon basket) and it wasn’t always safe (his second flight ended in a landing that dragged him and his wife for a kilometer). But he was on to something. By the First World War, the cultural theorist Paul Virilio wrote, aviation had ceased to be about breaking flight records and had become an essential, a determinant  aspect of modernity and “one way, or perhaps even the ultimate way, of seeing.”

The price point for that way of seeing has dropped dramatically in the past few years. The continued development of the components that go inside smartphones—sensors, optics, batteries, and embedded processors—has brought the cost of an able quadcopter with a camera and a thirty-minute battery life down to roughly $700, within reach of many gadgeteers and amateurs. The FAA has predicted that by 2018, around 7,500 drones will fly over the U.S., and that’s not counting many smaller, lower-flying consumer systems. Just as the computer giants vied to put a computer in everyone’s pocket, some upstart drone companies dream of putting a drone joystick in everyone’s hand. “We are entering the drone age,” declared Chris Anderson in 2012, as he left his job editing Wired to run 3D Robotics, a drone kit company, and DIY Drones, an associated website where drone hobbyists share mostly open-source designs. The site has over 30,000 members. Now armed with small cameras and GPS navigation systems, homemade and commercially-available remote aircraft are used as affordable tools for filmmaking, farming, environmental sensing, wilderness patrol, and searching for missing people. They have been used by realtors to make dramatic videos of homes, and by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to take epic video selfies. “Our goal is to put flying robots in the hands of as many people as possible,” Tim Reuter, a drone hobbyist and one of the founders of AirDroids, one of many drone startups based in San Diego, told TechCrunch in January. (In a Kickstarter campaign, the company raised over $50,000 overnight.) “We think it’s empowering to democratize the sky,” he added.

The drone raises the stakes in the tension between information and privacy. When Google’s Street View cars were found to be collecting massive amounts of data in Germany without proper authorization, they became a symbol of the massive and otherwise invisible network of sensors that spans from the street corner to our inboxes. And yet these cars—someday, per Google’s driverless dream, bound to be drones themselves—bring us value: they allow anyone to view the streets like a kind of drone pilot. Google’s satellite maps, meanwhile, have done for the Earth what Google’s web crawlers did for the Internet. They allow us to scan the Earth on a map that is, per Jorge Luis Borges’ famous short story “On Exactitude in Science,” as large as the world itself. (The U.S. government, with its satellites, can have something like a real-time version of this map.) In 2012, the artist James Bridle underscored the drone-like power of Google with Dronestagram [featured in Aperture‘s “Documentary Expanded” issue], bird’s-eye-view photos of the locations of drone strikes taken from Google Maps and tinted like a scenic cell phone selfie. It contemplated two sides of the drone, bringing the people closer to a way of seeing typically reserved by the state.

The Drone Primer is available for free download.