May 24, 2013
Human flight has become boring. Air travel is a testament to man’s ingenuity and imagination. In the words of comedian Louis CK, “you’re siting in a chair – IN THE SKY.” It’s amazing. And yet, in only 50 years or so, flight, something scholars and inventors have been investigating for centuries, has become a banality. Sometimes, even an inconvenience! And though we may have mastered the skies to the extent that unmanned aerial vehicles can be sent anywhere on the planet, there is still some mystery left to discover. For while drone technology may seem to be the only area where advancements in flight are being made, many researchers today, like Archytas and da Vinci before them, remain fascinated by something that seems much simpler: bird flight, and by the possibility of creating unmanned aerial vehicles of a very different nature.
Take for example, SmartBird (top image) a project developed 2011 by Festo, a global leader in automation technology. Inspired by the herring gull and the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Smartbird is a robot with articulated wings that function just like their biological inspiration, generating thrust and forward motion. With Smartbird, researchers wanted to decode bird flight to develop a machine that could take off, fly, and land using only its own wing-flapping power. The “mechatronic and cybernetic holistic design” was made possible by using lightweight construction materials and a unique mechanism that allows the wings to twist and torque in a way that approximates real birds. SmartBird is not necessarily the future of aviation, but was created as a proof-of-concept for technology that may one day be used to help create more efficient factory automation and new power generators. However, it’s natural flight movements and seagull “disguise” seem to imply more tactical uses.
More recently, researchers at the University of Maryland Robotics Center have successfully launched a “micro air vehicle” that has been in development for eight years. After many test flights, many crashes, and many adjustments, the Robo Raven, as it is known took to the skies for the first after the team made a design breakthrough in April. Their new design features programmable wings that can be controlled independently, like real bird wings, allowing for high velocity dives, rolls, and other aerial acrobatics. The silver mylar-winged robot is much smaller and much more abstract in appearance than the SmartBird, but its movement is incredibly realistic. So realistic in fact, that it has even fooled nature – several early models were torn apart by hawks. It’s really quite something to see. The project’s success was also made possible by recent advancements in manufacturing like 3D printing and laser cutting. The Maryland team suggest that one day, the relatively lightweight, cheap, and versatile technology of robot birds could potentially be used for agriculture and environmental monitoring. There are other possibilities as well, including surveillance – Robo Raven has already been outfitted with a POV camera. If these robotic birds become natural enough, the drones of tomorrow could be undetectable to the untrained eye.
But you don’t need drones or robots to survey of a city from the skies. New York architects Aranda\Lasch have shown that cyborg pigeons will do just fine.
Aranda\Lasch developed The Brooklyn Pigeon Project as an experimental biological satellite. A flock of trained pigeons, ubiquitous in New York City, were equipped with a small battery, video camera, and microphone, and flown in spiral patterns over Brooklyn. The project is both a documentation of flocking behavior and an attempt to craft a true birds-eye view of the city. The avian cartographers of the Brooklyn Pigeon Project are sensitive to environmental stimuli that their human counterparts can’t observe. Their flight patterns are affected by sound, smells, and their ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field form. The resulting maps differ dramatically from the purely technological “grid” of modern GIS systems to provide a unique perspective on the city that, in the words of the designers, “contrasts directly with the way the city is increasingly recorded and represented today.”
The Brooklyn Pigeon Project has a precedent in the work of pharmacist, inventor, and amateur photograph by the name of Julius Neubronner who, between 1907 and 1920, developed dozens of miniature cameras designed to be attached to carrier pigeons via tiny leather harnesses. While initially created as little more than a hobby, Neubronner anticipated that his invention would have military uses and indeed his pigeon photographers were briefly enlisted and deployed to safely take photographs over enemy lines (part of an ongoing effort to militarize animals, as noted in ion’s history of animal soldiers). Although slightly more unweilding than the BPP cameras, Neubronner’s device is perhaps more ingenious.
It’s exciting to think that the avian world still has much to teach us. We still strive to capture the world as experienced by birds – the way they so elegantly move thorough the skies, see the ground, and detect the invisible forces that surround us. New research, combined with new manufacturing technologies, is bringing us a little closer to the day when the familiar airplanes and intimidating drones filling our skies will be replaced by autonomous, naturally flying, all-seeing, robotic birds. Despite centuries of investigation, we’ve only just started to unlock the secrets that nature perfected over eons.
February 15, 2013
Drones can’t just destroy, they can create. Although the military uses of drones are widely debated, less discussed are their potentially revolutionary civilian implications. They aren’t yet widespread, but drones are being used by hobbyists, photographers, farmers, ranchers, and they may even herald an entirely new type of architecture. Last year, Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler, in collaboration with Raffaello D’Andrea, developed “Flight Assembled Architecture” – an experimental concept structure that employed small, unmanned aerial vehicles programmed to build.
Created as an installation for the FRAC Centre in Orléans, France in early 2012, the project models a speculative construction system that integrates robotics, digital fabrication, engineering, and design. Several small robotic “quadrocopters” lift 1,500 foam blocks into a complex cylindrical tower standing more than six meters high. While these miniature construction drones act, in part, according to a set of pre-programmed parameters, they also operate semi-autonomously; they’re capable of communicating with one another and independently sensing the height of the the tower to place their block accordingly. The tower is a model for a speculative future habitat that would stand more than 600 meters tall and house 30,000 inhabitants.
It makes sense to illustrate such a revolutionary concept with a skyscraper – after all, the skyscraper wouldn’t be possible if architects and engineers hadn’t embraced technologies such as steel construction and elevators. Construction drones are the bleeding edge of speculative building technology and they’re perfectly designed to create high-rise buildings in urban areas where construction can be incredibly difficult and costly. As Kohler noted in an essay for the architectural journal Log, “the conditions of aerial robotic construction are entirely liberated from the bottom-up accessibility of material, man, or [existing] machine.” These robots can create buildings without erecting scaffolding or using cranes. Drone-built designs aren’t beholden to current construction limitations and their use opens up a new possibility of architectural forms.
Of course, if Gramazio & Kohler’s model were built at full-scale in the real-world, much larger robots would have to be used, and building modules would have to be designed to fit the scale and weight of the construction drones. Shipping containers, which have been widely used in architecture for some time, seem like the most convenient option, but to use containers is to limit possibility. Thinking longer term, it’s an inefficient appropriation of existing objects and infrastructure, whereas Gramazio & Kohler drones suggest a profound rethinking of building materials and assembly. Kohler writes, “As the load capacity of flying machines is limited and the machines’ agility directly depends on their load, the development of high-performance lightweight materials systems both aerially transportable and robotically deployed will be necessary.” The architects call this a “high resolution” architecture – smaller, denser, carefully calibrated, and incredibly precise.
Though it sounds like something from a sci-fi future, there is precedent for air-lifted architecture. American polymath and pioneer of the geodesic dome, Buckminster Fuller developed the “Dymaxion House” in the 1920s – an inexpensive, mass-producible architecture that could be transported by helicopter and lowered onto a construction site, requiring only minimal service to install. Fuller also proposed a swords-to-ploughshares appropriation of military equipment and infrastructure to produce and construct his designs. “Flight Assembled Architecture” suggests that the same could be done with drones.
Buckminster Fuller and others like him may have provided spiritual inspiration for the project, but the programmability and versatility of flying robots presents a world of possibilities unimagined during Fuller’s time (actually, he probably did imagine them, the man was a genius). Construction drones could even be programmed with different “skills” or built specifically to perform a particular task; they could work in areas that aren’t fit for humans, aiding in disaster relief or other emergencies.
For better or worse, drones have captured the public imagination more than any other weapon since the nuclear bomb. Harnessing the power of the atom enabled us to level cities, but it also gave us a new way to power them. Like the Bomb, the technology behind unmanned aerial vehicles can be used to destroy or it can be used to build. Today, the architecture of drones is limited to the portable, retrofitted trailers and shipping containers used by remote pilots. Tomorrow, however, drones may serve the architect instead of the solider, and herald an entirely new style of aerial architecture.
February 12, 2013
Recently, the United States’ use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has been the subject of much debate and scrutiny. But their history dates back a lot further than the war on terror. The first true UAVs, which are technically defined by their capability to return successfully after a mission, were developed in the late 1950s, but the American military actually began designing and developing unmanned aircraft during the first World War.
Military aviation was born during the years preceding the World War I, but once the war began, the industry exploded. Barely more than a decade after Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully completed the first documented flight in history –achieving only 12 seconds of air time and traveling 120 feet– hundreds of different airplanes could be seen dogfighting the skies above Europe. Mastering the sky had changed the face of war. Perhaps due to their distance from the fighting, the United States trailed behind Europe in producing military fliers but by the end of the War, the U.S. Army and Navy had designed and built an entirely new type of aircraft: a plane that didn’t require a pilot.
The first functioning unmanned aerial vehicle was developed in 1918 as a secret project supervised by Orville Wright and Charles F. Kettering. Kettering was an electrical engineer and founder of the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, known as Delco, which pioneered electric ignition systems for automobiles and was soon bought out by General Motors. At GM, Kettering continued to invent and develop improvements to the automobile, as well as portable lighting systems, refrigeration coolants, and he even experimented with harnessing solar energy. When the U.S. entered World War I, his engineering prowess was applied to the war effort and, under Kettering’s direction, the government developed the world’s first “self-flying aerial torpedo,” which eventually came to be known as the “Kettering Bug”.
The bug was a simple, cheaply made 12-foot-long wooden biplane with a wingspan of nearly 15 feet that, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, weighed just 530 pounds, including a 180 pound bomb. It was powered by a four-cylinder, 40-horsepower engine manufactured by Ford. Kettering believed that his Bugs could be calibrated for precision attacks against fortified enemy defenses up to 75 miles away – a much greater distance than could be reached by any field artillery. The accuracy of this early “drone” was the result of an ingenious and surprisingly simple mechanism: after determining wind speed, direction, and desired distance, operators calculated the number of engine revolutions needed to take the Bug to its target; the Bug was launched from a dolly that rolled along a track, much like the original Wright flier (today, smaller drones are still launched from a slingshot-like rail), and, after the proper number of revolutions, a cam dropped into place and released the wings from the payload-carrying fuselage – which simply fell onto the target. To be sure, it wasn’t an exact science, but some would argue that drones still aren’t an exact science.
The Dayton-Wright Airplane Company built fewer than 50 Bugs but the war ended before any could be used in battle. That might be for the best. Much like today, there was a lot of doubt about the reliability and predictability of the unmanned aircraft and the military expressed concern about possibly endangering friendly troops. After the war, research into unmanned aircraft continued for a short time, but development halted in the 1920s due to the scarcity of funding and research on UAVs wasn’t seriously picked up again until the outbreak of World War II. Although by today’s standards, the Kettering Bug has more in common with a guided missile than a drone, its conception as a pilotless plane represents an important step in the historical development of unmanned aerial vehicles.
February 8, 2013
As drones become increasingly common tools of war and surveillance on the battlefield and in our cities, how are architects and designers responding? Previously, we’ve looked at personal counter-surveillance measures, but it’s likely that future designers will move beyond the scale of the individual to larger projects such as drone-proof architecture or perhaps even urban-scale counter-surveillance. Concerned about what he sees as the improper or unjustified use of drones, law student Asher J. Kohn has imagined how an anti-drone city might look and function. This isn’t a science fiction scenario, but a seriously considered urban design strategy. In fact, considering that the speculative plan for what Kohn has named “Shura City” is designed to counter the most technologically sophisticated weapons ever developed, the proposal is surprisingly low-tech.
Shura City disrupts the machines’ equipment and confuses remote operators through the careful use of materials and design strategies. “What this project proposes is a new way to think about space. Drone warfare proposes that every inch of land is (and all of its inhabitants are) part of the battle space,” says Kohn. The anti-drone city must be logical enough for inhabitants to navigate, yet random enough to befuddle automated surveillance. Kohn, not a trained designer, is vague on the interior layout, but suggests a flexible, adaptable plan inspired by Moshe Safdie’s Habitat, the high-density, modular residential project built as part of the 1967 Montreal Expo. Key features of Shura City include colored glass-block windows to prevent unwanted surveillance, a transparent roof enclosure that provides both thermal control to undermine drones’ heat sensors as well as a complex structural and lighting system to create a visual interference for drone tracking systems. This confusion is all carefully optimized to prevent individual targeting. Minarets (or church steeples or other religious towers) surround the city; an important cultural gesture gesture to unite the community that has the added effect of interrupting drone flight patterns.
There are, of course some near-future sci-fi-ish features included, such as QR code window screens that communicate to the passing drones, “letting the machines outside know that they are not welcome and should fear coming closer.”
The proposal isn’t meant as a call to arms to anti-drone architects, but a demonstration to inspire all professions to consider interacting with drones instead of simply being subjected to them. As Kohn notes, “This project is merely intended as a setting-off point for discussions on proper defense and on what ‘proper defense’ might mean.”
Shura City isn’t the only conceptual utopia that responds to current political issues. A group of “Patriot Bloggers” recently started a movement to develop a community in the mountains of Idaho for people who “are bound together patriotism, pride in American exceptionalism, our proud history of Liberty as defined by our Founding Fathers, and physical preparedness to survive and prevail in the face of natural catastrophes…or man-made catastrophes such as a power grid failure or economic collapse.” The Citadel: a Community of Liberty, as the project is known, is also designed to resist the prying eyes of outsiders. It combines the fortification and charm of medieval castles with the everyday banality of high-rise condo living and suburban development. There isn’t much information available on the design of The Citadel, other than a conceptual plan and an illustration of a condo-castle. However, it is noted that homes “can be finished with several facades, from a log cabin to vinyl siding, to a brick face, to an elegant and stately Federal design.” It sounds like a standard developer project or gated community, except the gates are massive stone walls topped with battlements and each home is equipped with a generator, 2,500 gallon water tank, a composting toilet, a one year supply of food, two AR15-variant rifles with 1,000 rounds of ammunition each, and a safe room.
Unlike Shura City, the design isn’t a response to any potential attack –in fact, it’s made clear that the Citadel is not designed to withstand a direct attack from military of government forces– but it is a symbolic reflection of a group’s political beliefs. In this case, “Rightful Liberty” as defined by Thomas Jefferson: “unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”
The Citadel isn’t the only American community being planned according to political beliefs. Conservative pundit Glenn Beck aspires to build his own self-sustaining utopia, “Independence,” inspired by the work of Walt Disney and Ayn Rand’s Objectivist manifesto Atlas Shrugged.
In a lot of ways these projects, especially Shura City, recall the 1970s idea of Defensible Space. Developed by architect and city planner Oscar Newman, defensible space posits that the design of residential settings can deter crime and reduce residents’ fear of crime. Newman’s principles, which include enhancing visual and physical access to encouraging a sense of community and accountability, were successfully applied to the design of housing developments in urban areas and his influence can still be felt today. More broadly speaking, Shura City is part of a larger history of defensive urban design.
Most famously, there’s Baron Haussmann’s transformation of Paris that paved boulevards through the city to allow the movement of soldiers and to deter the populace from construction barricades. During World War II, Hitler transformed all of Europe into a fortress while closer to home, military facilities were disguised as suburban towns with a little Hollywood magic. More recently, there’s bollard-ization of American streets and fortification of its financial buildings and monuments as a response to terrorist attacks. In light of this history, it doesn’t take much to imagine buildings that deter drone attacks or invasions of privacy through visual or spacial means; high-tech building materials could block electronic signals or cancel thermal signatures. Perhaps entirely new architectural forms will emerge to disrupt surveillance algorithms or provide camouflage. In this architectural arms race, as the nature of war changes, so too will the nature of defensible space.
February 1, 2013
Invisibility has long been a dream of man. Popular culture has depicted it as both a science –think Star Trek’s cloaking devices and the Invisible Man’s formula– and magic – Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak comes to mind– but the distinction between the two classifications may be, as Arthur C. Clark famously postulated, only a matter of technological advancement. For example, late last year a team of scientists at Duke University took one step closer to making magic a reality when they developed a “meta-material” capable of bending light to cloak a two-dimensional object from microwave radiation. Not quite true invisibility, but “transformation optics” is an exciting new field leading us into a very Star Trek future. However, designer Adam Harvey is planning for more of a Terminator future (and for some people a very real present), where drones patrol our skies, watching our every move with their heat-seeking camera-eyes. So while current science is working toward concealing objects from the human eye, Harvey has already developed a line of clothing that makes people nearly invisible to the machine eye.
Harvey, in collaboration with fashion designer Johanna Bloomfield, has developed Stealth Wear, a new fashion line “designed for counter-surveillance.” The “Anti-Drone garments” are a response to a very real concern about the growing loss of privacy and the increased use of new surveillance technologies and autonomous drones. Although they’re most often deployed in war zones, drones are starting to be used by police for domestic surveillance and security as well. They can be equipped with video cameras, radar, infrared cameras and heat sensors. The Stealth Wear garments are made with a light-weight, “metallized” (half-silver, half-nickel) fabric that reflects heat, making it capable of blocking IR and thermal imaging scans. It’s urban camouflage that’s a little more pragmatic than an IKEA ghillie suit. Currently, three garments are available: the anti-drone hoodie (pictured) and, acknowledging that the majority of current drone strikes happen in country’s with primarily Muslim populations, the anti-drone burqa and the anti-drone scarf. The designers notes that “Conceptually, these garments align themselves with the rationale behind the traditional hijab and burqa: to act as ‘the veil which separates man or the world from God,’ replacing God with drone.” Not being watched by robots is the new black.
However, Harvey’s work avoids making any overtly political statements in favor of a more academic interest in camouflage and the intersection of art, technology, and politics. Stealth Wear isn’t 100% effective in blocking heat signatures but, as Harvey told The Globe and Mail, that’s not the point: “These clothes are proxies for generating something else, whether it’s a conversation about privacy and responsible use of technology, or a policy change.” While “invisibility cloak” is magical and whimsical and currently exists only on the bleeding edge of science, “anti-drone hoodie” is a little more sinister, a little more practical, and a little more couture.
Stealth Wear isn’t Harvey’s only work dealing with electronic surveillance. He previously created, CV Dazzle, a sort of makeup designed to disrupt facial recognition software, and is currently working on For Your Eyes Only, a project that aims to subvert automatic object recognition to prevent machines from identifying objects.