Drones in the Contemporary Urban City: Interview with Ole. B. Jensen

How will drones affect the way you live your life in the city? Will their increasing presence in the ‘grid’ have a direct effect on your day-to-day routines, routes, and privacy? According to the Center for the Study of the Drone, drones are changing the nature of aerial surveillance. [1] Not your average helicopters and commercial airliners, drones are more sizeably manageable, less noisy, cheaper to fly, and their versatility and mobility allows them to maintain surveillance for 24 hour periods.

The Center for the Study of the Drone’s document, The Drone Primer, also observes that “while it is true that we are in the midst of a frenetic—and at times hyperbolic—public reaction to the prospect of drones emerging in domestic space, it is very possible that society will in time become accustomed to this technology, just as those in urban centers have acclimatised to an environment of prevalent police surveillance platforms such as CCTV systems.”[2] Civilian populations becoming fully acclimated to drones may take another decade or so, in theory, but we are already partially becoming familiarized with how drones, both the DIY kind and the government kind, are changing the way we think about structuring the architecture of our cities and airports, for instance.

Central drone command and control centres. Drone landing pods integrated into skyscrapers. The material infrastructure of the three-dimensional city ‘inscribed’ with visual clues and ‘routes’ for drones.[3] All of these ideas may be a reality once drones become further entrenched as mobile technologies into the urban landscape. Graham and Hewitt view drones as fundamentally mobile.[4] Wall and Monahan wrote about how this mobility is frequently placed at the center of attention in how drones are promoted - discourses focusing on the advancements of the operation of these aircrafts, referencing their ability to stay in the air for longer periods of time and function more efficiently all-around.[5]

Ole B. Jensen, a Professor of Urban Theory and Design at Aalborg University in Denmark, considers drone research only a minor part of his general research interest, which is about mobility and human-spatial dimensions. He explained in an e-mail that this interest covers “pretty much anything about how contemporary (urban) everyday life changes as a function of traffic systems and infrastructures to digital communication technologies.” As an urban scholar with an interest in mobilities, Jensen said that drones have piqued his interest into “how they may transform future urban life” and “surveillance and power issues are an inevitable part of this discussion.”

In “Drone city – power, design and aerial mobility in the age of ‘smart cities’”, Jensen asks:

“As with the advent of any technology the presence of drones triggers a number of issues: are drones the future of urban information and surveillance infrastructure?

“Will drones patrol cities and urban neighbourhoods in the future?

“How will this be controlled and regulated, and what will such mobile surveillance mean for urban life?

“Will mobile drone surveillance be confined to state agencies, or will private businesses and citizen also be able to apply these technologies?”[6]

“With drones we are facing a highly flexible and versatile surveillance technology, which when applied to urban surveillance (and when social recognition software is provided), may become even more contentious,” Jensen says. “Already, the issue of CCTV systems applying social recognition software begs questions of how one becomes a person of interest and how particular algorithms verify identification and authenticity. Such power-technical questions will not become less important or complex with the addition of the ‘fifth dimension’ of drone surveillance to future urban spaces.”

What happens with our cities if the fifth dimension of surveillance becomes institutionalised as a standard operation procedure of surveillance? “Seen from the point of view of the state apparatus, this means new and unseen potential for crowd control and surveillance. Seen from the point of view of the citizen, this means the end of public space as we know it. One thing for certain, however, is that we have only seen the beginning of how drones may affect issues of power, design and aerial mobility in the age of smart cities.”

Professor Jensen’s take on drones goes via the French philosopher Michel Foucault. “In one of his famous lectures he speaks of how disciplinary systems, technologies, government systems and procedures, and many other means of power historically have been ‘tested’ as it were in ‘foreign and uncivilized territories’ only then to bounce back to (Western) societies,” Jensen said.

“Foucault uses the quite compelling metaphor of a ‘boomerang’ to describe this mechanism, and you might want to think of the application of the helicopter in Vietnam. This is a surveillance technology ‘tested far away’ only later to become absorbed into the surveillance technologies in many (dare I say peaceful… but then at least non-military conflict zones) of urban metropolises.”

His paper entitled “New ‘Foucauldian Boomerangs’: Drones and Urban Surveillance”[7] was the subject of an e-mail interview I conducted with him.

Interview with Professor Ole B. Jensen

Newsbud: Is there a particular example of technologies ‘migrating’ from warfare and military to urban policing which troubles or concerns you more than others?

Jensen: No, not really. I think most of the high-tech warfare technologies are pretty scary when applied in urban contexts. However, we are of course also appreciating some of the migrating technologies. Try to imagine contemporary urban wayfinding and navigation without GPS! The thing that is worrying is the increasing migration of the violent and anti-democratic applications of military technology into non-combat zones (urban or elsewhere). The migration of these technologies are not only related to new power geometries and undemocratic practices. They are also contributing to the ‘naturalization’ of these technologies. This is for example the case with GPS tracking which any kid with a smart phone utilizes on a daily basis. Having said so I am personally even more concerned about the biometric surveillance technologies whose reach into the very intimate and embodied zones of human existence raises grounds for serious concern.

Newsbud: In 100 years, do you think we will see a surveillance “panopticon” in major metropolises?

Jensen: In many respects we already have a form of surveillance panopticism in our cities. Algorithms and software are surveilling us as we speak and computer vision, facial recognition and pervasive biometrics are already a reality. So the outlook for the next 100 years defies my imagination. Suffice to say that unless something very dramatic happens we are on a trajectory of increased surveillance by all sorts of technologies.

Newsbud: You mentioned terms like ‘human subjects’, ‘crowd control’, ‘modified-behavior’, and ‘violent dehumanization and non-differentiation’ and ‘blurred notions of peaceful versus conflict zones’. With such a complex new area in urban studies, is it difficult to navigate drone technologies and the effect they have on human society, while applying multiple disciplinary discourses to their study: mobilities, geopolitics, geography, and surveillance?

Jensen: I don’t know if it is as difficult as it is mandatory. Most contemporary urban development traits actually should be studied across disciplines. When it comes to drones this is no exception. One also have to remember that drones are in principle ‘flying computers’ which means that studying drone applications also means that one is looking at software, codes, and complex digital technologies. Furthermore, the drone suggest that we should apply what has been termed ‘volumetric thinking’. In other words, we need to contemplate the three dimensionality of urban spaces as the presence of the drone makes us explore the voids and volumes between buildings and not just the flat, horizontal surfaces of roads and plazas. This means again a new interface between urban geography and architecture is needed.

Newsbud: In your paper, you ended your final paragraph with an exclamation mark. “Urban drone surveillance systems potentially emerge as hybrid socio-technical assemblages of complex three-dimensional, non-hierarchal foam city space that may be explored for their capacity to act as new Foucauldian boomerangs!” Are you excited for the future or does part of you also yield to being cautious and prepared for what it brings?

Jensen: If you read my paper as an expression of positive excitement on behalf of drone surveillance I need to explain myself for sure. In the paper I am trying to exercise the needed academic distance to create the analysis, but as a citizen I am deeply worried and not at all excited about the prospects of a future with urban drone surveillance. Having said so, I do feel that drones are fascinating technological artefacts. That does not mean, however, that I am normatively appreciative when they are applied to comprehensive surveillance of public spaces in cities. Just because we study things and find them fascinating does not mean we are normatively appreciative of them.

Newsbud: How would you guide the advancement of drones if, let’s say, tomorrow, you automatically became the acting president and chief decisionmaker of every military and civilian corporation in the world?

Jensen: An interesting question. I often exercise the ‘what if …’ question on my own students. In accordance with my personal beliefs I would be very, very concerned if the omnipotent decision power that you describe should reside with one person – that being me or anyone else for that matter! However, I take it that you are suggesting what I would do if I had any real influence on drones in cities. I don’t think I could imagine to rule out their presences totally since there are good and justifiable reasons to apply drone surveillance. However, the ‘rules of engagement’ would have to be very strict and under some form of public control and accountability. How such a system should look is beyond my capabilities to explain in detail, but I would definitely be concerned if drones surveillance becomes the order of the day – and I actually think they might be!

Newsbud: What attracts you to the study of mobility and human-spatial dimensions? Because you focus on urban architecture, communications, cities as artifacts, infrastructures, and so forth, do you find yourself missing the ‘natural’ aspects? Or does nature (forests, oceans, animals, and the universe) also trickle into your life’s work?

Jensen: I don’t think ‘nature’ is ‘out there’ or outside cities or complex mobilities systems. The complex ecosystems, microclimates, and co-existence of multiple species in cities are surely a ground condition. However, I am a sociologist by training and thus inclined to study people as the foreground of my analysis. There are many, many relevant and important explorations on the non-human and ecological dimension of (urban) life that needs to be studied. I do, however, have limits to my capacity and time as a researcher so I need to trust other to explore and engage the dimension of ‘nature’. The only thing that is really important in this respect is that one does not separate ‘nature’ as something ‘next to’ or ‘besides’ ‘society’ or ‘humans’. On an ontological level we are all enrolled into large complex systems and ecologies. The big ‘modern mistake’ has been to think that humans are so very special and always in control – but that’s surely another story.

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Erik Moshe, Newsbud Analyst, lives in Northern Virginia and is currently studying writing and rhetoric at George Mason University. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013. He can be contacted at emoshe@gmu.edu.


[1] The Drone Primer: A Compendium Of The Key Issues http://dronecenter.bard.edu/publication/the-drone-primer/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rawn, Evan. 2015. The Three-Dimensional City: How Drones Will Impact the Future Urban Landscape, 01 Jan 2015. ArchDaily http://www.archdaily.com/583398/the-three-dimensional-city-how-drones-will-impact-the-future-urban-landscape/

[4] Graham, S. and Hewitt, L.: Getting off the ground: On the politics of urban verticality, Prog. Hum. Geogr., 37, 72–92, 2013.

[5] Wall, T. and Monahan, T.: Surveillance and violence from afar: The politics of drones and liminal security-scapes, Theor. Criminol., 15, 239–254, 2011.

[6] Drone city – power, design and aerial mobility in the age of “smart cities” http://www.geogr-helv.net/71/67/2016/gh-71-67-2016.pdf

[7] Jensen, O. B.: New “Foucauldian Boomerangs” – Drones and Urban Surveillance, Surveillance & Society, 13, in press, 2016.

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  1. Wow… great piece, Erik. Very timely and certainly an issue worthy of a sober consideration. Thanks and keep up the great work =]

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