Unless you live in a country where military drones in the sky are a terrifying fact of life – Pakistan, say, or Yemen – you might not know exactly what they look like. James Bridle, a writer and artist who lives in London, wants to change that.
Bridle's Drone Shadow Handbook [PDF] provides detailed instructions on how to sketch the outline of a drone - the imagined shadow of such an aircraft overhead – on a city street near you. The book, which I read about on Policy Mic, enables anyone to replicate one. It's an ongoing art project for Bridle, who wants to bring public awareness of drones to the citizens of the countries that launch them.
The reaction to the drone shadows he has drawn on street in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and elsewhere has been revealing, Bridle writes in an email. "There has been a great and growing reaction from the public," he writes.
It usually starts with the simple enough 'I had no idea they were so big’ -- which is telling, that something so current in contemporary affairs still has no physical reality for most people -- and then extends to questioning what else might not be so widely understood about drones, their operation, and the systems which underlie them.
The military drones Bridle diagrams in his handbook, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, can be very big indeed. The MQ-9 Reaper, for instance, a "hunter-killer" vehicle which is flown by the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and France, has a wingspan of more than 65 feet.
Only in Brisbane Australia, has Bridle been prevented from marking one of these, he says. "The State Government stepped in to prevent the drone being drawn," he writes. "This too has a value, as it leads to further investigation of the causes of that discomfort, which reveal as much about the politics of power as the drone shadow itself."
Bridle says he began the project as a way to explore the vast military and intelligence network that surrounds us, most of the time without any awareness on our part. UAVs are used not only on bombing missions in the Middle East, but also – to take just a couple of examples – in surveillance of the U.S.-Canada border and on anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean.
Drones, he writes, allow "sight and action at a distance, while also remaining invisible. They are the pointy end of a complex technological and political process, [and] their technology is used to distract from their politics."
Bridle’s other drone-related projects include Dronestagram, in which he posts Google Maps satellite images of drone-strike locations to Instagram as the strikes occur.
As for Amazon's recent plan to use drones to deliver packages to its customers, Bridle is dismissive and disgusted. "I have nothing but contempt for it, and for the news outlets that have given it so much airtime," he writes. "Nobody in their right mind wants to fill the streets of our cities with 10-pound assemblages of flying blades traveling rapidly at head height with little situational awareness. Even before you get into issues of accountability and legal responsibility, the very idea is patently absurd."
The Amazon story that should be reported, says Bridle, has to do with human beings, not machines – the thousands of company workers with inadequate job security and benefits. "These workers are the true drones in Amazon's infrastructure," he says.
Bridle says he hopes his Drone Shadows Handbook force people to think about the evolving, pervasive technology network that envelops our cities and every aspect of our culture. "With these networked and automated systems comes also a quasi-military infrastructure of secrecy and surveillance which is profoundly undemocratic," he writes. It "has no place in a just society.”