Interview by Maximilian Jablonowski
Maximilian Jablonowski: While reading your book, one learns about your “transformation in a drone hobbyist”; from the thorough preparations in advance of your first flights with your drone Jay until you finally becoming an experienced drone pilot and drone videographer. Where did your interest in drones come from? Was there a particular event that sparked your curiosity in the new technology? And why did consumer drones, recreationally used drones in the “context of play”, as you’ve put it, strike you as a particularly relevant and timely field of research?
Julia M. Hildebrand: The connection between communication and transportation has always been a fascinating topic for me. Not only do these practices and concepts share some history but communication and movement continue to be entangled and disentangled in compelling ways. Think self-driving cars, Pokémon Go, and, of course, the consumer drone. I remember the moment when I decided to “zoom in” on the aerial medium. I had been looking for a project that would allow me to bring together media and mobilities research, when I watched a Netflix travel documentary about the U.S. Midwest. Suddenly, I saw this breath-taking shot in which a flying camera follows a car drive down Route 66 into the sunset. This aerial view and its movement were so unlike that of a helicopter, a balloon, or other airborne devices. I realized this was a drone. It would be the perfect platform on which to critically explore contemporary configurations of communication and transportation.
My attention to drones for play emerged out of the lack of empirical data for the popular recreational practice. There is a strong body of literature on the military drone and more and more scholarship is looking into the commercial drone. I was surprised to find so few studies on the hobby and artistic drone, when the U.S. alone counted almost 1 million hobbyists that seemingly logged 1.5 million hours of recreational flight every month in 2020. Plus, the hobby drone was becoming increasingly contentious with public narratives focusing on its capacities for spying, surveying, stalking, disrupting, and harming others. Nonetheless, recreational users have remained enthusiastic about the flying camera.
How do hobbyists adopt consumer drones and what do those practices teach us about contemporary forms of media and mobility? Exploring these questions through interviews, participant observation, and auto-ethnographic research allowed me to both fill gaps in drone scholarship with data on recreational and artistic uses as well as advance frameworks in critical media studies, mobile communication, and mobilities research. While many discourses position drones as predominantly weapons, neutral tools, or mere toys, I make the case for approaching consumer drones as mobile media with much potential in the hands of everyday users.
Maximilian Jablonowski: Swiss drone researchers Francisco Klauser and Silvana Pedrozo have diagnosed a dramatic lack of empirical research in publications about drones. Even though the situation has somewhat changed since they made their assessment back in 2015, your book is certainly one of the most or, I would even say, the most methodologically advanced and empirically deep study in the field of drone research. You have developed “auto-drone-technography” as a concept and “drone-logs” as an epistemic tool for exploring the complex assemblage of communication, spaces, and mobilities that are brought together by drones. Could you tell a bit about these methodologies? How did they help you to approach drones, both as field of research and as technological objects?
Julia M. Hildebrand: The drone, which in my case is a DJI Mavic Pro Platinum model, allowed me to combine my aerial video recordings with personal audio voice-overs. Those “drone-logs” became an analytic diary of sorts in which “we” (the drone and I) captured the drone’s “sky videos” along with my own “ground audio.” That juxtaposition produced several interesting findings; by themselves each recording would have been less eye-opening.
I first recognized this as a unique opportunity for data collection and analysis when I followed one of my study participants on Facebook. They livestreamed an afternoon drone flight session but forgot to turn off their smartphone microphone. As a result, while watching the live-stream, I heard the remote pilot’s soft breathing. They eventually noticed this and turned off the mic. Yet, that moment in which the far away, machinic, aerial view was combined with the very intimate, human practice of breathing was extraordinary. The pairing of the two different recordings made each stand out more. This inspired me to juxtapose my own voice-overs, which were self-reflective and analytic as well as spontaneous, with the respective drone visuals.
By introducing the practice of “auto-drone-technography,” I want to emphasize the value of studying the moments in which the human meets the technology, where the organic entangles with the machinic in unexpected ways. In such instances, one can teach us about the other and vice versa. Rooted in auto-ethnography as the systematic exploration of personal experience, auto-technography emphasizes the role of technology in how we experience the world. The flying camera as a medium is special here insofar as it reminds us of the larger picture, the importance of taking a step back, zooming out, and looking back at ourselves. The positionality of the drone pilot and the researcher more generally become central through the civilian drone lens.
Maximilian Jablonowski: You have not only developed a methodology for researching about drones but also for researching with drones. You and your drone Jay became a “hybrid-researcher,” forming a connection you describe as not only epistemic but also affective mobile companionship. You even describe your interaction, or, as you’ve also put it in reference to Karen Barad, your intra-action with the drone as a dance. How did this connection inform your research about drones, which relations and affects did it make possible? What did you learn about drones through dancing with Jay?
Julia M. Hildebrand: Something I did not anticipate in this research was the agency that my drone “Jay” would take on. We would become a “hybrid researcher” in the production of drone logs. However, not always would the machine and I be in “sync.” Particularly when I was learning about a new feature, it seemed as if we first had to find each other, read each other’s cues, figure out our joint processes of moving and communicating. We are an uneven couple that was learning to waltz together.
In the book, I also describe the insightful moment when Jay froze on me one afternoon and I was left without control over the drone hovering just a few feet above me. “He” was set to actively track me and so he independently “followed” me for another couple of minutes until the battery eventually drained. This experience was amazing, amusing, and frightening.
The engagement with the mobile medium can cover a range of affects from fear about crashing or losing the drone, to exhilaration about the view one just accessed, frustration about the technology “needing” something (a new battery, a software update, a clear gesture from the user), and joy in the playful inter- and intra-actions with the flying bodily extension.
My interviewees and participants echoed those observations. Evident was also that this unusual mobile companion did not need relatable features to appear as a “pet,” a “friend,” a “baby,” a “witness,” or, in my case, a dance partner. It was mostly “his/her/its” movement and the minimal agencies that the intelligent flight functions would afford.
Maximilian Jablonowski: In addition to your auto-drone-technography, you also did extensive ethnographic research among drone users. In more sensationalist media coverage, but also in some academic work, drone users are often portrayed as irresponsible young men who don’t care for the safety or privacy of the people around them. In your research, one gets a very different impression of this community. Your interviewees are very diverse with regard to gender and age and highly aware of the risk and the power that comes with flying drones. Can you tell a bit more about this community? Who are consumer drone user? What motivates them, which backgrounds do they have? Which skills and literacies do consumer drone users have or develop and what does drone flying mean to them?
Julia M. Hildebrand: The community in general is more diverse than what the public discourse implies. Naturally, an affinity to new gadgets, video gaming, and aviation is what many recreational drone pilots have in common. Yet, there is also a large segment of hobbyists who come to the practice through photography and videography. In this community, the technophile meets the traveller, the gamer meets the photographer. In addition, older generations interact with younger ones and next to the stereotypical young white male, I was happy to also discover a notable group of women as well as people of colour flying drones for fun and work. Among my interviewees, for example, were a former female jet pilot in her sixties, a mother in her twenties who vlogs about her drone racing, and a man of colour in his forties who otherwise works long hours in a nursing home.
Many of them use the hobby as a form of relaxation and escape. It takes them outside and can feel like a release. Others enjoy flying their drone(s) with their children and grandchildren. Of course, all of my interviewees referred to the awe-inspiring aerial view of consumer drones. It is those breath-taking images of familiar and unfamiliar landscapes that keep hobbyists interested in the practice. And this, despite the barriers that exist for this hobby.
The price of drone gear, for example, is significant when one is looking for reliable and advanced systems. The most popular devices for recreational drone flight lie between $300 and $800 USD not including additional batteries, propellers, SD cards, and so on. Less expensive options are available, especially in the toy section, but can be harder to fly with less safety and lower image quality. The costs, hence, certainly prevent a lot of people from entering the hobby.
In addition, even when consumer drones come with sense-and-avoid functions and smart flight settings, they can be difficult to operate at first. It takes practice along with an understanding of geographical conditions, aerial regulations, and, most importantly, attention to surrounding human and nonhuman mobilities from bystanders to birds. A hobby pilot participates in aerial traffic and bears significant responsibilities which many of my interviewees were sensitive to.
Maximilian Jablonowski: You are conceptualising consumer drones as fundamentally productive devices; they open up new and hybrid spaces, afford new skills and perspectives, enable connections and communication. I want to focus on the probably most obvious product of consumer drones, namely still and moving images. With regard to their image production, I think there’s the gravest misconception in current drone research, because concepts of drone vision, of what drones see, are almost exclusively considering the perceptive practices and capabilities of military drones, implicitly assuming that all drones, no matter who’s using them for which purposes, make us perceive the world in the same way. Drawing on German philosopher Walter Benjamin, you’re conceptualising the consumer drones’ vision as being “auratic”. Could you explain what this means? How is this auratic way of seeing distinct from the imperial aerial gaze that is commonly associated with military viewing practices? What does it mean to ‘see like a consumer drone’, as you have put it?
Julia M. Hildebrand: My exploration of the consumer drone gaze is meant to complement the literature on the military drone stare. Although the technologies share the name and a military background, it is important to also note the differences in how a military operator collects drone footage and how a hobbyist uses their flying camera. Beyond the top-down, ordering forms of surveillance, the consumer drone allows for creative, spontaneous, and playful explorations of three-dimensional space. The hawkish drone stare is reductionist and possessive. The consumer drone gaze is primarily about artfully opening up alluring geographies and the user’s own positionalities.
Benjamin’s concept of aura helped me describe and analyse this phenomenon. In the original German text, he defines aura as “Erscheinung einer Ferne, so nah sie sein mag” (W. Benjamin, 1963: 15), which is translated as “phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.” The original sentence may also be understood as a “vision/ emergence/ appearance /emanation” of a “remoteness/ faraway place/ foreign space” however “near/ familiar” it may be. This impression of remoteness is front and centre in recreational drone flying as even familiar everyday spaces begin to appear unfamiliar, auratic.
This auratic and playful quality of the consumer drone gaze exists alongside the imperial drone stare. Hence, drone scholarship benefits from a clearer delineation between those different types of contemporary “drone visions.”
Maximilian Jablonowski: Since consumer drones started to get more and more popular, there’s a debate among scholars, but also within the interested public what their rise to popularity means with regard to airspace as a public, but still highly restricted space only available to few and privileged stakeholders. As I have perceived the debate, there are mainly two positions, a more optimistic and a more sceptical one. Some, especially people who have a commercial interest in drone use, argue that consumer drones will democratise airspace, making it available for new communities which until now didn’t have the skill or the permission to access it. This democratisation will open up new opportunities for recreation, but also for commerce. That’s why others, among them myself, are worried that commercial drones could lead to a partial privatisation of lower airspace. Amazon’s proposal to reserve the space between 400-500 ft. above the ground to high-speed drone traffic is a first indication in this direction. This could finally have the effect that airspace dwellers like birds and insects and people on the ground will experience increased noise and pollution from above, infringing on their health and well-being.
On the final pages of your book, you make a very interesting case for an “individual right to aerial space”. How is this idea related to the controversy whether drones democratise or privatise airspace and why do think this right is important?
Julia M. Hildebrand: This question is increasingly relevant as public agencies such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Global UTM Association, but also private, commercial stakeholders “map” out desired unmanned traffic management approaches and spaces. In the U.S. context, the commercial sector is clearly privileged in those plans and conversations. The commercial drone market and investments into it continue to grow with major opportunities for especially the energy, construction, and agriculture industries. Aerial space is needed for commercial drones to safely map and survey, inspect, take images, and yes, make deliveries for Google, Amazon, and Walmart. The FAA already recognizes Google’s Wing and Amazon’s Prime Air as small drone airlines.
Recreational uses are at best secondary if mentioned at all in such plans and visions. It is unclear to what extent the hobby will be considered as lower airspaces get reassigned. In the book’s conclusion, I argue that consumer drones are unique points of entry into an educational hobby and often profession that combine technology, aviation, and science with communication, creativity, and the environment. The auratic vertical gaze, the freedom and release experienced by users, the distinct personal affective mobilities, and the “drone-mindedness” that can increase geographical awareness and environmental literacy are worth preserving through what I understand as an “individual right to aerial space.”
Without more insights into how and why recreational users adopt consumer drones and an understanding of its merits, we cannot adequately map out future unmanned aerial traffic. We run the risk of shutting down social, cultural, artistic, and educational opportunities for people outside of aviation and commerce to discover everyday geographies anew in a clearly regulated and governed but, nonetheless, shared aerial space.
Benjamin, Walter. 1963. Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit.