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drone sensing




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module contents

This module consists of an annotated reading list, a handout covering the use of drones to conduct field research and produce research products, two exercises engaging the possibility of drones for sensing practices, and two videos performing drone sensing.


  • The annotated reading list draws out the uses, features and contexts of drones. The list works through the consequences of drone for our sensing practices and our ethical practices.
  • The drone sensing section offers advice on the choice of drones grounded in the capacities of a particular drone and the goals of a situated researcher.
  • The two exercises, “Context Machines” and “Situated Drones,” explore the sensing practices made possible through drones and the impact of drones on a user’s sensorium.
  • The resources section offers information on FAA regulation for drone use in research vs recreation, how to know what kind of airspace you’re in, as well as flight tips and ideas for using drones in your pedagogy. 


Nathaniel Rivers

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Cindy-Lou Holland

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primary readings

Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective

by Donna Haraway

This primary framing reading reassesses vision as skilled practice and eschews the God’s-eye view.

by Anila Daulatzai and Sahar Ghumkhor

Investigates Western scholarship on drones and its resonances with military applications.

by Michael Richardson

Engages the phenomenon of “drone vision” and the modes of witnessing it engenders.

by Benjamin Wallace Wells

Explores the multi-faceted uses of drones—military & civilian—and how they change our sensory experiences.

by Tim Maughan

Speculative fictions about drones and how they might be variously folded into daily life both public & private.

by Teju Cole

A collection of tweets pairing famous first lines in literature with news headlines associated with drone warfare.

further reading


Drones are more formally known as either unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or unmanned arial systems (UAS). “Drone” is actually a term the United States military resists.


Drones are worth deploying and investigating in the context of digital field methods because of what forms of sensing they capacitate and the techniques and technologies they bring together. To think about drones is to think about GPS, light exposure, aerodynamics, frame rates, the dimensionality of property and sovereignty, and battery life. This is less a litany of stuff than it is an ecology of practices that constitute a drone, which it turns shapes its pilot. To pilot a drone is to experience an extension and augmentation of a body’s senses: being elsewhere while still being some place in particular. A drone navigating the skies is both a part of and apart from the pilot: a drone is semi-autonomous.

This semi-autonomy is, to a large extent, part of the drone’s appeal as a sensing platform. Indeed, it makes sense to think of a drone less as a discrete and singular device (i.e., a camera) than a platform for sensing. A pilot doesn’t see with a drone but rather from the drone. The drone itself is loaded with sensors (for instance, the DJI Phantom 4 is equipped with a FlightAutonomy system made up of five vision sensors, dual-band satellite positioning, and ultrasonic rangefinders) that allow it to independently hover in place, follow a requested flight path, and avoid dangerous obstacles.

It is for these reasons that such drones can be taken up quickly by amateurs and professionals alike. The uses to which a drone are put evidences how they capacitate pilots, somethings strangely, even dangerously, but also always inventively, expansively— accumulating sensing practices that also mediate how we can engage the world: sensing is never innocent, never actually remote and distant. Somewhere—there— but differently each time.


The legal situation around drones remains in flux as the law catches up with the available technology and what applications they afford. Drones create unique legal exigencies. How high up does your property actually go?—the legal boundaries of which have been shaped by airline flight paths and drilling technologies (in terms of how far down). The altitude that such drones inhabit hasn’t yet been legally defined.

drone models

The drones that this module takes up are consumer grade quadcopters deployed by amateurs and professionals alike. The amateur/professional distinction being important to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which issues pilot licenses to drone users operating drones for profit.

DJI Mavic Mini

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DJI Mavic

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DJI Phantom 4

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“The ‘eyes’ made available in modern technological sciences shatter any idea of passive vision; these prosthetic devices show us that all eyes, including our own organic ones, are active perceptual systems, building on translations and specific ways of seeing, that is, ways of life.”  — Donna Haraway

“Each of these flying robots, more than anything else, changes your perspective”
— Benjamin Wallace-Wells

1. context machines

Benjamin Wallace-Wells, in “Drones and Everything After,” describes watching drone footage that starts with the drone pilot first filming himself and two friends. The operator then moves the drone back and away—“the frame extends”:

now it captures not just the three men but the whole hill they are standing on, and then the park. Then, the neighborhood, and then most all of San Francisco. And then, majestically, the bay beyond. The film lasts only 15 seconds, but in Gupta’s hands the drone is not a tool of narcissism but a context machine. (emphases added)

“Context machine” is a provocative and productive designation for an unmanned arial vehicle. It suggests, to echo Donna Haraway’s “situated knowledge,” that context is not so much already there but rather something generated (or machined) through media and movement. Context is a series of thens, and drones—light on the wind—are a unique way of generating it. It is not a gods-eye view: piloting a drone is evidence enough of that. “The only way to find a larger vision” Haraway writes, “is to be somewhere in particular.”

Wallace-Well’s description of the drone as a context machine traces this.1 Wallace-Wells continues: “As the video ends, he is still in the center of the frame but his true subject has swelled all around him: San Francisco, the mass ornament” (emphasis added). Swelling suggests an accumulation from and around. Context “surrounds,” surely, but that surround must be composed.

1. Michael Richardson offers a possible rejoinder in his discussion of military drones:

“Drones and their operators are not only witnesses to kills, but to the battlespace, to the kill-chain, to the loss of context entailed in seeing through the eye of the drone. As one operator put it, watching war through the drone camera is like looking through a soda straw: all context vanishes” (“Drone’s-Eye View” 79-80).


This exercise aims to accumulate the thens that machine a context.

step 1

Select a location, perhaps a familiar or mundane one. Important to the selection of location is the terrain. Select a location that allows for a gradual ascent up and away from you. You can then try steeper ascents.

step 2

Launch and hover the drone having it face you and any companions. Begin recording. Plan on keeping the recording short. In the example above, Wallace Wells describes but a 15 second shot.

step 3

With the camera facing you, gradually back the drone up and away from you. The angle of ascent should be shaped in large part by the contours of the (built) environment. The drone’s relations with the landscape are also context.

step 4

Once the drone is at a particular altitude, say 100 feet or so, slow the ascent and begin slowly panning the camera around a full 360˚.

step 5

Working with the video you’ve generated think about/through adding music, sound effects, and/or narration. Consider these elements the accumulation of more thens as layers. The video you compose and deliver will not be about how drones generate context but will rather constitute a particular context.

An additional goal of the exercise, which itself works through logics of accumulation, is to practice the conceptual exploration of the gradient pan, which steps 2-4 describe. This technique opposes or complements the rack focus that would oscillate between two distinct points as distinct points (i.e. foreground and background). The gradient pan instead follows a slope outward or inward, towards and away. With the rack focus one gets this and that; with the gradient pan one gets then.

2. situated drones

In “Situated Knowledges,” Donna Haraway describes technologies as “skilled practices.” Haraway elaborates this description through an accumulation of questions:

How to see? Where to see from? What limits to vision? What to see for? Whom to see with? Who gets to have more than one point of view? Who gets blinded? Who wears blinders? Who interprets the visual field? What other sensory powers do we wish to cultivate besides vision? (587)

In addition to the political and moral questions of who gets to see and what is seen, Haraway marks the bodily implications for practices of vision as well. What happens to our sensorium with and from the drone? Note Benjamin Wallace-Wells description of a young amateur drone operator:

He liked to pilot the machine out of view, so far that his father would get anxious that it might crash or get lost, then bring it soaring back toward them, like a hero. Ettinger would sometimes get motion sickness flying the drone.

The practice of a flying a drone (practiced and unpracticed) includes our bodies. The drone does not move separate from us but rather tethered, networked. The artist Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox thinks of the drone not as “an eye-in-the-sky” but as “a node-in-the-sky.” Ourselves a node as well.


This exercise explores the experience of operating a drone through Haraway’s “situated knowledge.” And this experience, resonating with the adjacent exercise, concerns what else might accumulate—yet another then—through the operation of a drone. As Adam Rothstein writes, “Now we can begin to make a list of things that the drone could be for—intentionally, unintentionally, and accidentally” (87).

step 1

Select a location, perhaps a familiar or mundane one. Important to the selection of location is a felt sense of familiarity—I know this place.

step 2

Compose a brief description of location based from your daily experience of it. It might be a good idea to compose this description as a trajectory following Edgar Gómez Cruz who writes of “movement not only as a resource but also as an enabler
of a specific way of looking” (341).

step 3

Launch the drone and pan the camera so that it is pointing directly at the ground. Pick an altitude to hover at (thinking also in terms of safety and line of sight) and a trajectory to follow. Pan the camera up so that it’s pointing directly ahead. Begin recording. Plan on keeping the recording short—perhaps a 2-3 minutes. Repeat this step several times changing a particular aspect each time: the altitude, the trajectory, the length of the recording as well as the angle of the camera—shift from 90˚ to 60˚ and then 30˚ to the ground.

step 4

Compose short narratives about the location incorporating yourself as the drone—this can be done explicitly or implicitly (the later being perhaps more of a narrative challenge). Write the scene from the variable locations of the drone.

step 5

Record these narratives as voice overs for the footage from each trajectory.

step 6

Juxtapose the description you composed for step 2 with these narratives that play in front of you now. What new visions emerge from the various trajectories you traced and recorded? Keep in mind Haraway’s admonition that “The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular” (Haraway 590).

As you think through this exercise and the juxtapositions (always from somewhere) that you compose, consider Adam Rothstein when he writes,

“For better or for worse, we understand ourselves best with, through, and surrounded by our many technologies. And the drone, as an apparently pivotal technology narrative of our present, could be instrumental in how we think about ourselves in the coming century. We will not just have narratives about the drone. In our narratives, we will become the drone” (117).


While this exercise focuses on the inventional aspects of drone practices, like Haraway, it is cognizant of questions of access and of power. Haraway concludes the above list of questions— concerning questions of vision—writing, “Moral and political discourse should be the paradigm for rational discourse about the imagery and technologies of vision” (587).

A powerful and necessary example of such discourse is Madiha Tahir’s tracing of the colonial legacy of America’s drone bombing campaign in Pakistan. We can read her work as an answering of many of Haraway’s above question. Tahir writes, “This is how the drones fly: with license not to distinguish between anyone on the ground there” (5).

Anila Daulatzai and Sahar Ghumkhor argue in a similar vain about the deployment of drones in Afghanistan and the resonances with a kind of Western scholarship wherein a white scholar “intervenes, comforts, and ‘objectively’ evaluates,” which, for Daulatzai and Ghumkhor mark the stakes for “the interpretation of what is to be known about the lives of others, how they should be made intelligible, and what the effects are of this intelligibility.” They continue:

“Like the drone camera which zooms in on its inaudible yet visible Afghan as enemy, the camera lens similarly eliminates the Afghan as victim. As Ziauddin Sardar highlights, the real power of the Global North lies not in its massive economic development but rather, in its power to define, represent, and theorize the “Other.” Its capacity to eliminate by way of representation lies in its visual regime that turns technologies like drones into “the transport of terror.”

This resonates with Haraway when she writes: “here there also lies a serious danger of romanticizing and/or appropriating the vision of the less powerful while claiming to see from their positions. To see from below is neither easily learned nor unproblematic, even if ‘we’ ‘naturally’ inhabit the great underground terrain of subjugated knowledge” (583-584).

In short, as we pursue this exercise it is necessary to ask (again and again) what (skilled) practices constitute drone technologies in any instance, and what legacies have shaped these practices?

drone piloting basics