Review: The Drone – A 21st Century Phenomenon?

Rothstein, Adam. Drone. Bloomsbury, 2015.

As a part of the “Object Lessons” book-series, “Drone” by Adam Rothstein takes an interdisciplinary approach toward the drone as a bundle of emerging technologies. A time-traveler from the past (Rothstein, 2015: p.X), assembling technological narratives from the first cars to the latest robots. Rothstein provides a multi-layered account of this technology’s genealogy as a whole and in its parts through the employment of historical, socio-technological and ethical perspectives. While the author’s analysis focuses primarily on unpacking the development of technological, social and ethical discourses around the drone, the book goes beyond providing a mere contemporary freeze frame of this particular technology’s current state, presenting its historical emergence and subsequent integration in a variety of fields. By using the drone as a prime example for technological discourses in more general terms,  Rothstein expands the relevance of this work from a specific case-study toward a more general discussion of the multi-layered implications of technological advances. This review aims to both outline Rothstein’s approach towards technologies in discourses, both by re-tracing the drone in (social, technological and ethical) discourses and developments as well as extending his method towards more recent and possibly future developments and iterations of drone-technology. In contrast to other literature (such as “Drone – Remote Control Warfare” by Hugh Gusterson, 2016) that analyzes this new technology in terms of its implications on warfare (and the ethics of what it means to be at war), “Drone” by Rothstein paints a more holistic picture that includes the military roots and applications of drones in this field but goes beyond them and asks the very relevant question of where this technology could be heading next.

Technologies in Discourse: Spaces of Innovation

The book opens with four stories of four apparently unrelated technologies – the automobile, the aircraft, the computer and the robot (Rothstein, 2015: p.1-17) – describing their specific roots and the prerequisites necessary for their emergence. In referring to the concept of “parts and wholes” (Ibid. p.66-70), Rothstein introduces these four technology stories as interdependent and building upon the success of one another. For example, the computer – now included in almost every machine from refrigerators (Ibid. p.13) to cars – showcases this integrative aspect, as it, on one hand, appears as a whole, functional unit (the personal computer), but on the other hand as part of other technologies whose functionality (i.e. the smartphone) depends upon the existence and advancement of this foundational technology. 

In referring back to the drone, Rothstein shows how rather recent advances in motor- and battery-technology have allowed for the rapid spread of drone-technology throughout the hobby- and consumer-market. While the drone, especially in contrast to early planes, is being described as ‘projectized weapon’ (Rothstein, 2015: p.25) throughout the book, as a weapon-system which has been conceptualized and built from scratch not by backyard hobbyists, but instead by operationally closed organizations representing the military-industrial apparatus to create a new type of weapon with their particular interests and requirements in mind (Ibid. p.26-33), emergent drone technology represents not only a whole (such as for example the MQ-1 Predator Drone – p.32), but provides parts of tech which find their applications  within differing fields of interest, including not only the military-industrial complex’ area of interest, but the hobbyist- and consumer-market as well, where it is being adapted by tinkerers around the world towards a variety of purposes.

Aside from a detailed, technological account of the drone’s most relevant hardware and software-aspects, Rothstein continues to describe the drone as a space of human beings themselves (Ibid. p.XIV), where diverging narratives negotiate the meaning that the drone is being given by society, with hopes and dreams on the one hand, fears and nightmares on the other. (For a dystopic image of what a world of fully automated terrorism and warfare might look like, see online-reference (1): “Slaughterbots”) He emphasizes how the conception of a given product, for example the drone in memes or art, influences its present and future applications, thereby connecting together social and technological aspects.

While Rothstein does make use of the term ‘narrative’ to describe particular groups of interest around the drone, he refrains from using concepts such as that of discourse, which could prove fruitful in further advancing both the practical and theoretical  understanding of dynamic, competing narratives in this particular example. The term “collection” (Ibid. p.XIV) however seems inadequate for describing the relationship between such narratives, as it negates the competitive relationships between them. 

Drone-Ethics: A cautionary tale of interweaving technological narratives

“Drone” by Rothstein goes beyond providing a historical account of drone-technology, -conception and -usage throughout the book. In Chapter twelve, “The drone as meme”, he asks the normative question on how one ought to engage with and possibly advance drone-technology in an ethically responsible manner. In chapter three, “The commercial drone (or, the hole where it ought to be)”, Rothstein outlines several concerns raised by the GAO (Government Accountability Office), such as the vulnerability of command- and control-systems to failure and sabotage (Ibid. p.47), the risk of errors by the human pilot (loc. Cit.), and the current lack of regulations (Ibid. p.48). Building on this critique, Rothstein introduces four additional aspects: 

A) “the issue of privacy” (Rothstein, 2015: p.49) – since drones tend to come equipped with a variety of sensors, and, especially considering their military history as surveillance and reconnaissance-agents, Rothstein points toward privacy-issues, as drones could be used to  spy on people and their activities. 

B) A general point on automation and subsequent job-loss (loc. cit.), which not only applies to the possibility of autonomous drones, but a variety of technologies, such as automated manufacturing or, more recently, advances in self-driving cars. 

C) The danger of being re-introduced to their military usage (loc. cit.), as drones could (questionably) easily be equipped with weaponry or, more generally speaking, not-so-commercial payloads. This aspect will be discussed in greater detail in the later section of this review ‘The Drone and the democratization of warfare and terrorism’.

D) The drone’s cultural relevance as a symbol of military power and warfare – Being a derivative of military technology, Rothstein points out that drones could evoke images of military usage which might influence the ways in which this technology is interpreted and integrated  in society. In addition to being closely related to the previous issue, this last concern seems to contradict Rothstein’s vision of technologies as technologies in discourse, whereby not only the technologies themselves are altered through processes of updates and integration (‘parts and wholes’), but their perception is being continually shaped and iterated upon as well. This last point is  discussed in the above-mentioned chapter twelve in the context of memes, which are not only being copied and reproduced (Ibid. p.137 – For a fundamental conceptual differentiation of different modes of social interaction, see: Tarde, 2000 (1898)), but also evolve and mutate, thereby changing the understanding of a given artifact in the public eye. (For an example of a particular meme, the Pepe-Frog, and its transformation throughout recent history, see: Pelletier-Gagnon, J. 2018) Therefore, it is not apparent why the drone’s cultural meaning should be limited to its military roots.

Most of the ethical concerns (A-D) raised by the authors are valid and warrant further discussion, however his conclusion seems rather simplistic and contradicts the overarching point this book makes on the transitory character of technological narratives. While he rightfully points out that “Of course, objects are often used for completely different purposes than they were designed for, and they do things that no one intends at all.” (Rothstein, 2015: p.88), his normative recommendation to account “[…] for the entire realm of possibility, not just barnstorm into the future.” (Ibid. p.143) defies this premise, as it is not obvious which parts of a given technology have the potential to be integrated in  harmful technologies in the future. While this ethical stance is good at heart, the author’s recommendation to only advance technologies which cannot be put to harmful use seems rather short-sighted and not coherent in respect to the socio-technological, narrative-based conception of technology presented.

The Drone and the democratization of warfare and terrorism

While it would be a mistake to assume that drones can only be employed for military purposes (the second part of this review will outline three emerging drone-narratives beyond their military usage) and that, subsequently, their public image will inevitably remain that of the hunter-drone, it is apparent that even cheap to-buy or to-build quadcopters may be retrofitted to allow for usage in military or terrorist contexts. In fact,  recent reports on drones being sighted above Airports such as Gatwick, London, show that, even without military-grade armaments, drones may very well be employed to disrupt air-traffic and, in the worst case, lead to the loss of lives if taken in by the engines of starting, (commercial) aircrafts. Although calling these acts of unlawful disturbance terrorism seems somewhat far-fetched, one can see how drone-technology may enable individuals to project damage far beyond what  would have been possible without access to less common tools such as weapons or explosives.. (Online-reference (2))

This aspect of drone-usage could therefore be described as democratization of terrorism (or warfare), as the tools to wage war  are no longer exclusive to states or organizations, and instead may be carried out by the drone(s) of single or few individuals that project their will in a way similar to how a soldier projects the will of a state. Of course, calling these kinds of actions ‘democratic’ does not imply that they are somehow less despicable than similar actions carried out by larger organizations – An act of terrorism remains an act of terrorism, no matter who engages in it. However, it should be noted that the capacities to carry out such acts are shifting toward the individual and one could argue that drone-technology, amongst other factor, plays a significant role in this change.

On a similar note, drone-technology not only empowers individuals seeking to engage in these kinds of radical actions but can be used in a political protest-context too. In April of 2015, Yasuo Yamamoto used a  modified DJI Phantom, a common hobby-drone, to drop a small quantity of radioactive sand, gathered from the area surrounding the Fukushima reactor plant, on a government building, protesting the pro nuclear-power stance of the Japanese Government. (Online-reference (3) – This act of protest, in turn, led the Tokyo police force to employ drones themselves to catch rogue drones. (4)) Again, the line between political activism, unlawful disturbance and terrorism is a fine one, and it should be noted that this empowerment of individuals, previously described in the contexts of warfare and terrorism, extends beyond these domains and fundamentally change the way  we think about events like political protests and what constitutes them, both in terms of protests being carried out through drones (like the example above) or protests being enhanced by drones, by, for example, providing protesters with a view from above for improved coordination.

Towards the commercial drone – From projectized weapon back to the hobbyist’s shed: Exploring three emerging narratives

Whilst the first part of this review took a closer look at Adam Rothstein’s “Drone”, the following second part extends his method of conceptualizing technological innovations as discourses and presents three examples of emerging drone-narratives: The (medical) supply-drone, the manned drone and the racing-drone.

Even though the drone’s relevance, both in terms of its strategic and tactical military value and its power as a cultural symbol are undisputed, the long-term commercial success of this technology still appears  nebulous. Aside from applications in aerial photography and filmmaking (Rothstein, 2015: p.41-43), which could be regarded as a mere extension of its military frame of use, the commercial drone “[…] or the hole where it ought to be” (Ibid. p.35) is yet to find its’ niche. In his first outline of this emerging field, Rothstein introduced the possibility of using the drone as couriers for medical supplies (referring to the startup “Matternet” on page XII –,  implying that the drone’s commercial future could in part, be found in the realm of commodity-delivery,such as airborne food supplies. (Ibid. p.43)

“Zipline” (, another startup company, focuses on delivering medical supplies via drones, having taken up the concept of autonomous, flying delivery-vehicles in modified form: instead of vertically landing and placing the commodities in a specified area (as conceptualized by companies such as Matternet), Zipline drops medical supplies via parachute from an internal storage (not unlike bomb-bays in military context).  This allows Zipline to employ drone-technologies without vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities, thereby bypassing energy-efficiency issues, commonly related to multicopters and instead opting for a more traditional plane-like layout with extended range and improved aerial stability.

In tracing the emergence of this narrative and its relation to yet unsuccessful counterparts (for example the delivery drone for more commonplace commodities such as food or electronics), medical supplies fulfill three criteria, which appear crucial for successful adaption in aerial delivery-systems:

High value, limited size and comparatively low weight commodities are suited for delivery via drone, especially if these items can be delivered via parachute. (which is itself dependent upon the commodities being limited in size and low-weight). While this brings up a number of legitimate, ethical concerns (like the danger of (medical) supplies being dropped in inadequate locations like peoples’ heads), one can easily imagine that, following these three criteria, drones could be employed to deliver drugs in more general terms for medical or recreational usage directly to the customer. (Currently, this usage of drone-technology – the ‘Narco-Drone’ (Online-references (5) ) is restricted to those who do not fear breaking the law, however, one could easily imagine that, given liberal laws around the trade of drugs were to take effect, this use of the drone as drug-courier could  become a common reality.) 

To further improve efficiency and accuracy of delivery, the re-integration of military technology like laser- or GPS-based guidance systems could allow for the successful deployment of multiple (re-usable) delivery-shells (avoiding the parent-term ‘bomb’) in a short period of time,  improving safety, reliability and accuracy of delivery while cutting costs through the capability of carrying numerous, deployable delivery-units at once and not having to land for the delivery.

A different recent application of drone-technology which, surprisingly enough, comes in the form of the by now almost mystical ‘flying car’ can currently be followed on tinkerers’ channels on social media, such as “amazingdiyprojects” on YouTube.

This form of drone-narratives diverges from the drone in a military context in two central aspects: First, as described in the first part of this review, the military drone represents a form of projectized weapon, conceptualized and developed from scratch by government institutions or closely affiliated companies. The narrative of the ‘personal drone’ (amongst others) brings drone-technology back to the hobbyists’ and tinkerers’ sheds, opening up this field to the creativity of a whole community beyond a singular, closed development-complex.

Secondly, this interpretation of the drone seems to undermine the drone’s very definition as an unmanned vehicle (Rothstein, 2015: originally as target-drone – p.27). This circumstance provides a prime example of the beforementioned conceptual differentiation between ‘parts and wholes’. While this aircraft does not share the identifying characteristic of being unmanned, it nevertheless uses dedicated drone-technology (such as brushless motors arranged (in groups) in the characteristic quadcopter-layout and controlled via conventional flight-controllers) to engage these parts in a new, yet related narrative which re-integrates the pilot in his aircraft on the basis of technology that sought to radically transform this relationship through the pilot’s removal from a locally integrated cockpit.

The last drone-narrative to be presented in this context only recently emerging from the tinkerers’ realm but might prove important in shaping the way in which drones are perceived by society can be described as drone-racing: (Rothstein already touched upon this possibility in “Drone Ethnography” (2011), sketching out what might become a “Nascar of Drones”)

In contrast to the previous example of drone-narratives, the drones employed in these kinds of races may appear much more drone-like, yet their potential transformative impact on the drone’s cultural relevance can hardly be understated. Not only are drone-races allowing for a community-driven conception of the drone – Instead of being a kind of ‘lone hunter’, stalking from above, drones are being integrated in the contest between pilots and their relationship to the spectator -, but for a fundamentally new mode of experiencing race-events: Commonly, the operator’s perspective (be it races on the ground like Formula 1, NASCAR or Air-races like those hosted for example by Red Bull) is fundamentally different from the spectators’ perspective. Since race-drones are operated via first-person livestream, however, the spectator could experience the race from the pilot’s perspective through participation in these streams in addition to his third-person-perspective. Adam Rothstein already touched upon the relationship between controlling a drone and the viewpoint which the pilot takes in regard to this operation (egocentric – like FPV-drones – vs. exocentric – p. 127-130), however, additional research will be required to understand the specific implications of a combination of egocentric and exocentric points of view, especially in terms of its potential to be shared and commercialized in both online- and offline-environments.

Conclusion: The Drone as a space of human culture

Even though technology (drone-technology being no exception) is moving at a rapid pace, the book “Drone” retains its value not only as a cross-section of what drone-technology currently (or rather in 2015) enables us to achieve (and destroy) or as a historical analysis of where the drone came from, but also  provides us with a fundamental understanding of technological narratives in discourses, presenting in great detail how technologies as parts and wholes are integrated in emerging tech. This analysis is performed through a socio-technological lens, allowing for the accounting of the interwoven nature of social practices and the technologies we produce. The book thereby carefully moves between materialist and sociologist perspectives (Latour, 1994. p.42) without falling into radical interpretations of either. 

The drone’s ethical components, or more generally speaking, the ethics of responsible, technological innovation are very much welcome and encourage the reader to critically assess the implications of introducing new technologies into our lives. The presentation of both specific ethical issues raised toward the drone, as well as more general suggestions on responsible innovation-practices shows how ethical concerns arise from a multitude of levels throughout the implementational process of a given technology, even though the second issue on responsible innovation-practices in general terms appears underdeveloped and does not account for the epistemological limits of actually recognizing a technology’s harmful implications, or for the temporal aspect which might transform our conception of ethical innovation throughout time. In conclusion, this book is a must-read for anyone explicitly interested in drone-technology, or the relationship between technological narratives in more general terms, and inspires us to imagine what other applications the drone might be used for.

– Kevin Weller