BY Heba Y. Amin AND Anthony Downey in Opinion | 30 OCT 20
Featured in
Issue 215

A Brief History of Drone Warfare

Since the beginning of the 20th century, aerial technologies have lent the sky – and the birds that fly through it – with a threatening presence

BY Heba Y. Amin AND Anthony Downey in Opinion | 30 OCT 20

In August 2012, a mechanical bird crashed in Chaman, the capital of Qilla Abdullah District in Balochistan Province, Pakistan. From afar, it appeared to be just another air-bound raptor but, upon its retrieval by villagers, it became obvious that it was, in fact, a surveillance drone masquerading as a bird of prey. Camouflaged behind its avian veneer, this bird-like drone offers a glimpse of how the science of ethology – the study of animal behaviour, specifically the aerodynamics of flight – has been increasingly utilized to disguise unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). 

The connection between birds and aerial surveillance was originally pioneered in 1907 by Julius Gustav Neubronner, a German apothecary, inventor, amateur photographer and filmmaker. It was Neubronner who first attached lightweight cameras to homing pigeons to capture images from above. The results from this so-called pigeon photography, as it became known, were impressive and Neubronner’s techniques were later enhanced with a clockwork delay mechanism to control the timing of exposures and ensure better reconnaissance images. Successive advances in aviation technology and photography, which caught the attention of the German army in the 1930s, led to substantial developments in imaging and reconnaissance during World War II, when aerial photographs were used to determine troop movements and plan military attacks. The concepts behind Neubronner’s ideas are today considered forerunners of UAVs and the armed reconnaissance drones that emerged in the 1980s. 

Heba Y. Amin, As Birds Flying, 2016, video still. Courtesy: the artist

Recalling events in Balochistan, Egyptian authorities detained a migratory stork for espionage in 2013. This incident, and the historical frameworks in which it occurred, form the cornerstone of the avian-influenced artistic project, ‘The General’s Stork’ (2016–ongoing). Driven by a body of research that investigates the politics of aerial surveillance from a bird’s-eye view, the work highlights the fact that surveillance has largely evolved with the topography of the Middle East in mind. Exploring how the aeroplane and camera came together to produce images of the region, ‘The General’s Stork’ focuses in particular on the implications of effecting and visualizing warfare through mechanized means. The first bombs dropped from an aeroplane, flown by Italian pilot Guilio Gavotti, fell on Tripoli in November 1911 during the Italo-Turkish war – a pivotal event in the violent transition of Ottoman Libya into an Italian colony. At the time, the air-power theorist General Giulio Douhet – an early proponent of strategic bombing – argued that aerial warfare was more efficient and more humane because of the fear it instilled in the opponent. In a precursor of the infamous ‘shock and awe’ rhetoric deployed almost a century later in the lead up to and execution of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Douhet also proposed that wars would end more quickly when combatants were confronted with a looming threat from above. ‘Nothing man can do on the surface of the earth,’ he asserted in his book Command of the Air (1921), ‘can interfere with a plane in flight, moving freely in a third dimension.’ 

From Heba Y. Amin, The General’s Stork, 2020, edited by Anthony Downey. Courtesy: the artist and Sternberg Press
From Heba Y. Amin, The General’s Stork, 2020, edited by Anthony Downey. Courtesy: the artist and Sternberg Press

The spectacle of drones has material consequences for those who live under constant surveillance. The sky has become a place from which subjects – often viewed as objects –  are scrutinized, categorized and, in some cases, targeted for elimination as so-called enemy combatants. In the case of the camouflaged drone reported in Balochistan, we may want to ask what happens when we can no longer differentiate a machine from a living thing; or, more pertinently, what happens when drones target individuals and communities through the augmented means of algorithmic reasoning? If the flight of a bird overhead can augur the appearance of a drone, how can communities living in the shadow of such surveillance trust their surroundings?

This article first appeared in frieze issue 215 with the headline ‘Avian Auguries ’.

Main image: A homing pigeon wearing Julius Gustav Neubronner's camera, 1914. Courtesy: Kronberg Archive

Heba Y. Amin is an artist. Heba Y. Amin: The General’s Stork (2020), edited by Anthony Downey, is published as part of Sternberg Press’s ‘Research/Practice’ series. Her solo exhibition ‘When I see the future, I close my eyes’, at The Mosaic Rooms, London, UK, is on view until 28 March 2021. She lives in Berlin, Germany. 

Anthony Downey is professor of visual culture in the Middle East and North Africa at Birmingham City University, UK. He sits on the editorial boards of Third Text and Journal of Digital War and is the series editor for ‘Research/Practice’ (Sternberg Press, 2019–ongoing). He lives in Folkestone, UK.