Drones, power and airspace

Programme of work: Drones, power and airspace

Camera-fitted drones are now easily affordable to the public. Overall, more than 20,000 drones are currently estimated to be in use in Switzerland, while globally, the market potential of military and civilian drones is estimated at 89,000 billion dollars for the period of 2013 to 2021. The resulting proliferation of the aerial gaze raises a series of critical questions, ranging from the changing regimes of visibility across urban and rural space to the novel risks and dynamics of control implied by current drone developments.

In 2014, the Swiss legal framework around drones was revised substantially. Further reflection is currently under way in the Federal Office of Civil Aviation on the regulatory and societal challenges associated with the proliferating use of. On a European level, the EU Summit on 19 December 2013 called for immediate action to enable the progressive integration of drones into civil airspace from 2016 onwards. This reiterates powerfully the topicality of, but also the complex challenges associated with, the drone problematic.

The programme of work at Neuchâtel University on the drone problematic aims to (1) afford empirically-based insight into the driving forces that are behind current drone developments, to (2) show how drones work in different institutional contexts, and to (3) highlight how drones impact on the envisioned reality. On this basis, the aim is to assess the opportunities and problems arising from the current spread of drone utilisation.

Adding to broader debates on civil liberties, privacy, security issues, threats of terrorism, policing and the digitisation of society, the programme thus aspires to more fully inform citizens, public agencies and the private sector of the various dimensions and effects of the current evolutions in the field of drone utilisation, to raise awareness of the advantages and problems of the technology, to inform public policies and, ultimately, to favour critical democratic debate.
Conceptually speaking, drones are approached as techniques of power that are intrinsically bound up with space: they combine various geographical scales and spatial logics of control; they offer novel ways of monitoring, following and orchestrating flows of people and objects; and they allow the administration of wider urban areas and border regions. At the same time they create a parallel world of control rooms in which ‘drone surveillance’ is put into action. Thus the programme of work starts from the basic assumption that a distinct ‘spatial curiosity’ and ‘power sensitivity’ are required to understand the logics, functioning and implications of drones in the present-day world.