Drones in Visual Culture
Research aims and overview
This Fellowship aims to understand whether and how the use of drone technology in society is changing the way people see the world and visual culture more broadly, and to extend and innovate current theoretical approaches to visual mobile communication. It is underpinned by exploring i) the aesthetic characteristics of drone visuals, ii) how drone visuals circulate and iii) public perception of drone visuals.
Drones are widely understood as unstaffed aircrafts, generally fitted with cameras that can be remotely controlled and used for recreational and commercial purposes. As flying robots, drones can capture images that would be difficult to take with ordinary cameras, providing a wealth of new visual information that would be otherwise unavailable. Aerial photography/videography is not a new phenomenon. What is new and different is that increasingly drones are used not only by drone operators with valid CAA permission, but also by amateurs, noticeably expanding the potential to capture, share and store new visual content.
Research into drones to date has focused on technical aspects and the implications of their use in warzones. There has also been a small amount of research into the issues they raise in terms of surveillance, privacy and ethics, but surprisingly the significance of drones for visual culture has not been addressed. Therefore, I plan to use this Fellowship to address the overarching research question:
– In what ways are drones contributing to or changing contemporary visual cultures?
I will also address the subsidiary research questions:
- What are the aesthetic, textual, semiotic characteristics of drone visuals?
- How do drone visuals live? Where are they seen and shared? How widely? By whom? With what implications?
- What do the general public think about drone visuals? How do they perceive them?
- What is the impact of drone visuals on culture more widely? What are the main issues they raise?
Through these questions, I will add a digital arts and humanities perspective to the current understanding of drones, and will showcase how such a perspective can move academic research on drones beyond existing analyses of technicalities and safety considerations. For this purpose, this Fellowship will adopt a ‘visual culture’ approach that pays attention to the visual object and the active experience of the individual in the optical experience. This will be combined with a ‘technological mediation’ approach that acknowledges the importance of thinking of visuals in the digital age in direct conversation with media and new technologies. In this way, the Fellowship will bring visual communication and culture studies into conversation with other fields, especially internet, digital and mobile media studies.
Methodologically, this Fellowship employs a mixed methods approach that is novel in its integration of three strands. First, online participant observation will be conducted on drone users and how their visuals circulate online. Second, a survey will be conducted within a public exhibition to collect public perceptions of drone visuals. Third, qualitative content analysis on drone visuals will be conducted to explore their aesthetic characteristics and meanings.
This project builds on the insights and experience of a British Academy funded pilot project (Small Grant Ref SRG18R1\180618) where I explored users’ and developers’ perspectives on drone usage.
AHRC Leadership Fellowship
Grant Number: AH/T012528/1
Dr Lauren Alex O’Hagan is a historical sociolinguist, with expertise in the application of visual social semiotics and multimodal critical discourse analysis to such artefacts as book inscriptions, postcards, advertisements, food packaging and rock memorabilia. She obtained her PhD from Cardiff University in 2018 with a research project entitled ‘Class, Culture and Conflict in the Edwardian Book Inscription: A Multimodal Ethnohistorical Approach’. Before joining the ‘Drones in Visual Culture’ project, she held postdoctoral researcher roles at Örebro University (Sweden) and Cardiff University (UK). She is particularly interested in tracing the historical origins of seemingly novel contemporary visual practices in order to better understand how their linguistic/semiotic features have shaped representations of discourse over time and made people think about the world in a particular way. Her first monograph The Sociocultural Functions of Edwardian Book Inscriptions: Taking a Multimodal Ethnohistorical Approach was published with Routledge in March 2021.
CALL FOR PAPERS: Drones in Society: New Visual Aesthetics
8th and 9th September 2022, Halifax Hall, Sheffield, UK
Drones are an increasingly important social phenomenon. Their use has the potential to change the way people see the world in the same way other technologies have, like smartphones and the internet. Generating questions that go beyond safety and security issues, their widespread use opens new debates on the relationship between media and mobility (Hildebrand, 2021), material practice (Howley, 2017), and vertical power (Kaplan, 2018). Drones are the latest technological advancement to have a significant impact in the world we live in, offering opportunities for new forms of visual communication, culture and practices.
We invite the submission of proposals for an interdisciplinary conference on these topics, ‘Drones in Society: New Visual Aesthetics’, which will be held on 8th and 9th September at Halifax Hall in Sheffield, UK. This 2-day conference will be hosted by the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield. The deadline for submission is 9th of April 2022.
The conference is concerned with the role of drones in society and the way in which they are contributing to new visual aesthetics.
The conference invites interdisciplinary research, reflection and critique on topics including (but not limited to) the following:
– People’s perspectives on drones (and their data): surveillance, ethics and privacy issues in domestic and commercial uses.
– New visual perspectives: the creation of new visual content (drone art and amateur uses).
– Drone regulations: potential gaps in regulating domestic and commercial drones, future perspectives.
– Current uses and future applications: the implementation of drones in society.
– Drones and vertical power: the uses of drones in war zones, activism and humanitarian activities.
– Individually submitted papers (organised into panels by the DiS committee)
– Panels (3-4 individual papers)
– Roundtable discussions (led by one of the presenters)
– Visual posters
Abstracts between 300-500 words in Word format must be submitted to email@example.com by 9th of April 2022.
You will be notified of the decision by 14th of May 2022.
Conference proceedings and selected papers will be published in a section of the forthcoming book Vision and Verticality (Palgrave), edited by Gary Bratchford and Dennis Zuev.
Confirmed keynote speaker: Julia M. Hildebrand, Assistant Professor of Communication at Eckerd College
Conference attendees will also have the opportunity to visit a drone visuals exhibition held on the evening of 8th September and participate in a workshop with two drone artists on 9th September.
Conference organised by Elisa Serafinelli and Lauren Alex O’Hagan, Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield
Hildebrand J. (2021): Aerial Play: Drone Medium, Mobility, Communication, and Culture. Singapore: Palgrave Mcmillan
Howley K. (2017): Drones: Media Discourse and the Public Imagination. New York: Peter Lang.
Kaplan C. (2018): Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime from Above. Durham: Duke University Press.
List of selected publications
Serafinelli E. and O’Hagan L. [in preparation]: Rethinking Authenticity in Drone Photography. To be presented at 73rd ICA, Toronto, Canada, 24-30 May, 2023.
Serafinelli E. [under review]: Views From the Blue: Theorising Drones in Visual Culture. Palgrave.
Serafinelli E. (eds.) [under review]: Drones in Society: New Visual Aesthetics. Palgrave.
This paper adopts a geosemiotics perspective to the study of top-down views produced by drone hobbyists to explore how they challenge or disrupt traditional meanings associated with verticality. Using a dataset of 748 drone visuals collected from two months of participant observation on social media platforms, we identify four unique functions of top-down views: as abstract art, as transformations of the mundane, as playful mapping and as dronies. Through prototypical examples, we demonstrate how civilian drones have created new forms of visualising and embodying our world, acting as intermediaries between humans and nature and, thus, challenging persisting negative associations of the link between verticality and power. Overall, our findings encourage a reappraisal of the drone as an object and see it instead as a complex material assemblage of the sky, which has the ability to extend our perception, modify our geographical imaginations and multiply our possible interpretations of the top-down view
This article seeks to situate drone imagery within a more extensive lineage of practice by focusing on one particular form with which it is comparable: pigeon photography. Using a combination of visual social semiotic analysis, literature from Drone Studies, and archival research, it highlights four overarching characteristics shared between photographs taken by pigeons between 1908 and 1912 and contemporary drone visuals produced by hobbyists: verticality, geographical reimaginations, access to inaccessible places, and aerial self-portraits. In doing so, it aims to develop a better understanding of the social and material affordances/constraints of aerial photography, its meaning potentials and how they may have changed across space and time, and the social relations that are reflected in and shaped by its images. The article concludes by suggesting a nuanced perspective into the relationship between “new” and “old” media, arguing that images taken by drones and pigeons have similarities in their forms and functions, but their creation is guided by different ideological values and bounded by the potentials, norms, and traditions of the time. This perspective builds upon the recent turn in media studies toward transhistorical approaches to place seemingly novel contemporary communication technology within historical patterns of practice and use.
Despite growing attention to the use and management of drone data and visuals, to date, little consideration has been given to the perspectives of civilian drone users/developers and their experiences of drones. The views of civilian drone users are essential because they represent a significant part of drone buyers, while drone developers are responsible for imagining how drones will be used. To address this gap in knowledge, the current paper draws on literature from media studies and science and technology studies, bringing together Taylor’s (2004) concept of social imaginary and Pink’s (2013) notion of visual practices to develop a theoretical framework that explores (i) civilian users’ and developers’ perspectives on drone usage; (ii) their knowledge of relevant regulations; and (iii) how they imagine civilian drone use should be regulated. Obtaining their viewpoints will help develop a greater understanding of the way users consume, change and domesticate technological developments and, in turn, the way users are shaped and transformed by technology. Furthermore, the findings have the potential to improve the match between technology and its users with a vision to further opportunities and potential challenges in drone applications from sociocultural perspectives.
Drone visuals are rapidly becoming part of our sociocultural imaginaries, generating distinct images that differ from traditional visual conventions and producing unexpected perspectives of the world that reveal hidden aspects of our surroundings. Despite the growing use of camera-laden drones in a range of commercial and non-commercial activities, to date, little scholarly attention has been paid to the semiotics of drone visuals. This article is the first to draw specific attention to the compositional structure of drone visuals, combining social semiotic analysis with ethnographic insights to assess how they are changing the way we think about the world. Exploring drone hobbyists’ and developers’ perspectives on drone usage and the visuals they generate, we identify and examine three frequently occurring characteristics of drone visuals: top-down views, 360-degree panoramic views and ‘classic’ landscape perspectives. The critical analysis of these peculiarities leads us to argue for the potential of these innovative visions to reshape our visual culture. In its conclusion, we aim to open a conversation about the way technological advancements mark important sociocultural changes in sense-making processes, geographical imaginations and everyday life experiences.
This online publication and magazine was created in collaboration with Futurum Careers, who aim to encourage 14-19-year-olds worldwide to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEM), and social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy (SHAPE). In the publication, we discuss our work on drone visuals and offer guidance to young people interested in a career in visual, cultural or digital media studies.
This paper presents the transcript of a Q&A discussion between drone scholar Anna Jackman and Elisa Serafinelli and Lauren Alex O’Hagan about their AHRC-funded project ‘Drones in Visual Culture: Developing a New Theory of Visual Mobile Communication. Elisa and Lauren discuss the aims and main findings of their project, as well as its broader implications for the fields of visual studies, digital media studies and cultural studies.
Views from the Blue: A Glimpse into Drone Photography
(Pint of Science)
This exhibition seeks to encourage a reappraisal of drones as instruments of surveillance and warfare by showcasing drone visuals produced by amateur drone users and shared on social media platforms. By shining a spotlight on their aesthetic, textual and semiotic characteristics, it aims to encourage viewers to reflect on how drones have created new ways of visualising and embodying our world, acting as intermediaries between humans and nature.
Perspectives on Drone Usage
Research aims and overview
Drones are an increasingly important social phenomenon. As flying robots, they can capture images that would be difficult to take with ordinary cameras or in risky situations, providing a wealth of visual information which would otherwise be hard to access. Increasingly, drones are used not only by drone operators with valid Civil Aviation Authority permission, but also by civilian users.
Despite the opportunities afforded by drones, their civilian use causes concern as they can capture, share and store images of events and people without following an established set of norms. In fact, the sharing of aerial images across communicative channels relies on drone users’ individual ethics and reflexivity, which suggests that we need to know more about these.
This study generates such knowledge, by investigating users’ and developers’ views on: i) domestic drone usage; ii) the images that it generates; and iii) how it should be regulated. The project uses qualitative interviews and visual content analysis to explore users’ and developers’ thoughts about this particular technological advancement and related risks and opportunities. Yet such imaginaries play a vital role in the eventual take up of new technologies like drones.
British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant funded project.
Grant Number: SRG18R1\180618
‘Even on a daily basis, yeah. I can’t go anywhere without thinking about how that area would look, how that would look from the sky. But it’s constantly for me a plan and a new shoot, a new image. So it has changed my way of seeing the world, yes!’ (Michael).
‘I also love taking the images from straight above looking directly downwards, again I’m a member of a local camera club I gave a talk there the other week, I had quite a few images looking straight down on things, and people hadn’t…they just couldn’t work out where it was then I showed, like, a more traditional view and, like, oh yeah! I know it now, and it just really messed with people’s minds a bit ‘cause you don’t get to see that perspective’ (Iain).
‘You have the ability to move a 3D space and you have the ability to look in areas where you were not able to look before, mainly like straight down, and so you have to, kind of, train your brain on utilising this capability more’ (Romeo).
List of selected publications
Drone visuals are rapidly becoming part of our sociocultural imaginaries, generating distinct images that differ from traditional visual conventions and producing unexpected perspectives of the world that reveal hidden aspects of our surroundings. Despite the growing use of camera-laden drones in a range of commercial and non-commercial activities, to date, little scholarly attention has been paid to the semiotics of drone visuals. This article is the first to draw specific attention to the compositional structure of drone visuals, combining social semiotic analysis with ethnographic insights to assess how they are changing the way we think about the world. Exploring drone hobbyists’ and developers’ perspectives on drone usage and the visuals they generate, the authors identify and examine three frequently occurring characteristics of drone visuals: top-down views, 360-degree panoramic views and ‘classic’ landscape perspectives. The critical analysis of these peculiarities leads them to argue for the potential of these innovative visions to reshape our visual culture. In their conclusion, the authors aim to open a conversation about the way technological advancements mark important sociocultural changes in sense-making processes, geographical imaginations and everyday life experiences.
Despite the opportunities afforded by the growing use of drones, their civilian use causes concern as they can capture, share and store images of events and people following a set of norms still in development. The main challenges risen by drone usage relates mainly to existing gaps in regulation and the difficulty to enforce approved guidelines. Further changes and implementation of drone legislation will broadly affect current applications and future opportunities shaping the way civilians will be allowed to use drones. This article explores these issues qualitatively, analysing (i) civilian users’ and developers’ views on drone usage, (ii) their knowledge of relevant regulations and (iii) how they imagine its use should be regulated. In its conclusion, this article discusses the general concern of potential privacy infringements and the importance to take into account civilians’ thoughts in further implementation of drone law in order to protect recreational practices.