Twenty-first Century Birdwatching
Amsterdam, October 2013
Our first ancestors could tell a lot from looking at the sky. Spotting and recognizing birds provided crucial information about the weather, where to find food, and what predators were near. In the twenty-first century urban landscape, knowledge of the natural environment has been replaced by our knowledge of technology. Most of us can’t tell the difference between the call of a osprey and a hawk, but everyone can tell the difference between a Nokia ringtone and an iPhone ringtone. We have grown so accustomed to technology that we perceive it as our natural habitat.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) will become ubiquitous in our new habitat. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicted that in 2030, 30,000 commercial and government drones could be flying in U.S. skies. The military seems to anticipate this changing relation with nature and technology in naming its drones: global hawk, heron, killer bee, mantis, predator, reaper, raven, sentinel, scan eagle, etc. Electronic birds hovering in the air, circling over warzones, until they spot their prey and attack.
Loss of Link
It is important that we learn to identify drones, by sight and by ear, and adapt to this changing environment. But we also have to learn their behavior. A drone is remotely controlled by its pilot via satellite link. When the link with the pilot is lost, a drone can behave erratically or unethically, and become a danger to friend or foe. In 2008 an Irish peacekeeping drone over Chad lost its link with the pilot, and it automatically set course for its homebase in Ireland. Since it had not been reprogrammed for its base in Africa, it crashed somewhere in the Sahara after running out of fuel without ever making it home.
A more serious case of a ‘drone gone rogue’ story happened in 2009 when a fully armed drone was flying westbound over Afghanistan and lost the link with the pilot. The U.S. Air Force was forced to shoot it down, in order to prevent the drone from flying into Iranian airspace and unknowingly unleashing a possible conflict. The satellite link from the drone to the pilot is its lifeline, the only part that is still human. This prevents drones from being able to fly over the North or South pole, something which piloted aircraft can do. Since data links rely on communication satellites over the equator, the poles are simply out of reach. The detachment of body and soul means a crashed drone is just a wreck. Pilots that crash are mourned and remembered as heroes. When a drone crashes, the pilot can fluently switch to another drone, a new body.
Surveillance in Full-HD
‘They don’t get hungry. They are not afraid. They don’t forget their orders. They don’t care if the guy next to them has been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes.’, explains a Pentagon official in ‘Wired for War’. Yes, drones can fly up to 33 hour missions, while pilots cannot fly longer than 10 hours. A new crew simply takes over, while the drone stays in flight. Drones on solar energy are being designed to be in a permanent state of flight. Their endurance, together with their sensor technology makes drones the perfect surveillance weapons. They carry high definition digital cameras, infrared cameras, and they can be fitted with a Gorgon Stare sensor.
Named affectionately after the Greek myth about three sisters whose gaze could turn someone into stone, the Gorgon Stare gives us a peek into the future of surveillance. Its 1.8 billion pixel camera can cover an area of 16 km², large enough to identify individuals within the area of a small city. Its cameras can follow twelve different targets at the same time. Surveillance’s wet dream, but also an analysts’ nightmare. The Pentagon said drones took so much video footage in 2009 alone it would take someone 24 years to watch it all. How can one analyse this amount of video? The answer is again, technology. The research institute for the U.S. military, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is currently working on visually intelligent software that can analyse video footage, and identify suspect behavior, or identify suspects using face recognition. From hours of video, this software is designed to pick out the terrorist, the car thief, and the protester amongst innocent bystanders. But can software tell the difference between a kid building a sandcastle and a terrorist burrowing a home-made explosive? When drones are increasingly used domestically, we may find ourselves in a state of permanent surveillance where algorithms end up deciding who is a target and who is not.
How does one resist such invasive technology? During a BBC report in 2011, a soldier of the U.S. military explained how a group of Taliban fighters couldn’t be seen at night, because they used space blankets. Since drones and helicopters use infrared cameras at night, the Taliban found space blankets an effective way to hide body heat, making someone invisible for infrared cameras. Developed by the U.S. space agency NASA in 1964, space blankets are thin sheets of mylar with a metallic reflective agent. Originally designed to insulate satellites, space blankets turned out to be a great way to keep body heat inside, or hide body heat. Using cheap materials to counter expensive military sensors is exemplary for the tactics used in asymmetric warfare. In this case both were developed by the same space and defence industry. The mirrored material of the space blanket reminds us that any surveillance, no matter how advanced, is merely people watching other people, and no matter how expensive and advanced technologies are, they do not win wars alone. We find the tactic of the mirror as a weapon again in the Greek myth of the Gorgon sisters, name giver to the U.S. Air Force surveillance technology. Like the Taliban, the Greek hero Perseus could only defeat the deadly stare of the Gorgon sisters by using a mirror to deflect their gaze.
Permanent State of Conflict
Despite their faults, drones have proved very successful for the military. The ability to wage war with very little casualties (at least on the side of the drones) has dramatically expanded the military drone programmes. On the African continent alone, the U.S. flies drones from nine known bases. Given the radius of a Reaper drone, the U.S. can reach all corners of the continent, except its ally South Africa. With the ability to fly almost everywhere, als long as the host country gives permission, U.S. drones are adopting the role of a global police patrol, able to strike anywhere, at anytime. This is shifting the notion of war towards a state of permanence. U.S. drones have attacked in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Mali, all without declaring war. The question is not just how this real-time ubiquitous surveillance will influence people’s behavior. Sooner or later, other countries will want the same abilities to take out unwanted targets anywhere in the world. Already more than 87 nations have drones, of which 26 have larger drones equivalent to the MQ-1 Predator. For instance, Russia has been critical about the U.S. drone programme, but is also busy developing its own $8 billion drone program. Western countries who support the U.S. drone program are creating a precedent for other military powers.
Drone Survival Guide
In 2012 I created a document that shows the silhouettes of the 27 best known military drones, all to scale, and lists the countries that use them. It also lists a series of countermeasures to avoid detection by the drones’ sensors, and how to disrupt them. Designed as a folded document, it can be carried with you at all times. Printed on metallic coated paper, the front side can be used to reflect sunlight and blind the drones’ camera, which is one of the countermeasures. The document can be downloaded and printed and distributed freely by anyone. Originally published in English and Pashto, people are invited to create new translations of the countermeasures, which are posted online. Currently 32 languages are available. The Drone Survival Guide is not useful for survival, for anti-drone warfare, nor is it an act of anti-American propaganda. It is made with the sole purpose of sharing information about a phenomenon that is quickly changing warfare, and which many do not yet fully understand. The Drone Survival Guide is a civilian initiative, self-funded and made with public information, to balance the information provided by actors with a political or commercial agenda.
Download a free PDF or order via Paypal at:
Printing by drukkerij SSP and Kees Maas zeefdruk.
Pashto translation by Hamida Babak.
Winner of an Excellence award at the Japan Media Arts Festival 2015.
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