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The Drone Survival Guide, a plane-spotting poster for an age of unmanned warfare

The Drone Survival Guide, a plane-spotting poster for an age of unmanned warfare


Making drones known

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Asked about drones, the average person will likely name the Reaper and Predator unmanned attack planes, or the tiny octocopters that Amazon hopes can deliver your packages. But the military category alone is far larger: Israel's small triangular Harpy, China's huge four-winged Soaring Dragon. Artist Ruben Pater's Drone Survival Guide is ostensibly for use in spotting and evading these drones, collecting the above craft and more in a birdwatching poster-style set of silhouettes. Like the "Stealth Wear" line of clothing, it's even theoretically designed to protect the user, printed on a mirrored surface that could be used to try to confuse a drone's camera. Unlike Stealth Wear or other more general commentaries, though, the survival guide turns drones into something knowable and specific, not a frightening catch-all category but a series of real, individual aircraft.

The drone survival guide, which started as Pater's graphic design masters project, is a lot like Bridle's drone recognition kit, and both pieces evoke the plane-spotting kits and cards used during World War II. "Of course, the idea you can hide from UAVs or be safe from them if they have harmful intentions is absurd," says Pater, although the back of the guide describes simple tactics like blocking your heat signature with a space blanket or more complex ones like hacking a GPS signal. Something like the aluminum poster surface, though in principle it could work for evasion, is more useful for its symbolic meaning, reminding readers that surveillance drones are in a way "sophisticated mirrors."

"When the public has adopted a name like that, it's impossible to change it to something 'less scary.'"

The survival guide encompasses everything from the massive Sentinel and Global Hawk surveillance craft to the portable Wasp III, almost invisible in a scale rendering of the two. They're nearly all military and meant for surveillance and attack, with one strange exception: the AR Parrot, a little consumer quadcopter that's controlled with a smartphone. The Parrot is a reminder that more than a word, "drone" is an aesthetic, encompassing virtually anything that flies without a pilot and could signify an alien, mechanized future.

At its best, the drone aesthetic and ubiquitous use of the term forcibly reminds residents of drone-owning countries of the supposedly clean, often invisible killings that take place overseas, or highlights the astonishing surveillance capabilities of an all but permanent aerial megacamera like Argus. Pater says accepting more blandly descriptive terms like UAV diminishes this impact. "When the public has adopted a name like that, it's impossible to change it to something 'less scary,'" he says. "That's why I use the word. My Afghan translator said that even in Afghanistan they also use the English word 'drone'. The whole point of military acronyms is to make dangerous technologies sound less scary."

At its worst, the aesthetic airbrushes everything with a glamorously dangerous tone, granting safe Americans living near unmanned crop dusters, for example, a hint of the edgy cachet that comes from obliquely putting them in the same boat as people who find their wedding parties mistaken for al-Qaeda gatherings. Almost nobody pretends that a camera-equipped quadcopter is the same as a sensor-equipped Global Hawk, but they end up semantically equated with each other. That's how you end up with things like this. "I agree putting a Predator in the same category as the quadcopter is stretching the idea of what a UAV is, although it is something we see everywhere," says Pater. "We had remote-controlled toy planes for many years without referring to them as kill robots."

"In a way we are looking at ourselves through sophisticated mirrors."

But including a hobbyist product on his poster, he says, was done partly because of its ubiquity, and for the future implications. "A Parrot AR Drone, which is sold on Amazon and electronic stores everywhere for an affordable price, could easily be outfitted with weapons, spyware, or whatever else people can think of. Because there is so little oversight, I think most people should be more aware of those than the large UAVs that the military uses."

Pater says he doesn't believe the guide to be particularly functional, but "the fact that people are not sure whether it's an artistic project or something else is interesting for me, especially because I notice people find it scary that it is translated in an Arabic language." Since the project appeared on Gizmodo, he says he's gotten three more translations in Italian, Arabic, and Indonesian. Free versions of the poster are downloadable online, with reflective ones sold through the site, and Pater says he's talking to organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan in hopes of using the guide for activism or education — even if you can't spot a drone in the air, you can understand who owns them and what they're being used for. "For me, that would be a very successful end goal of the project."