Ontologies of the Wayward Drone - Part I

A Salvage Operation

On a clear evening in December, as the sun was setting over the Texas horizon, a Mexican drone entered U.S. airspace and crashed into a backyard in El Paso.

In another time and place, a drone falling from the sky could have elicited a high degree of alarm. In this particular border neighborhood, however, it is not much of an event. Flanked by an army of surveillance cameras, floodlights, thermal imaging systems, inspection apparatuses, ground sensors, and mobile surveillance units -- fortifications that, together with an enormous barricade of cement, steel, and barbed wire, define the border with Mexico -- the region is home to a cavalcade of mysterious machines that populate the skies: reconnaissance aircraft, relentlessly prowling for illegal activity, extending ground patrols into the air. As the doomed drone lay tangled in the desert scrub brush and softly blowing sand, its processing ability weakened and its connective capability disabled, the resident calmly picked up his phone. He did not call emergency services. At the onset of this particular catastrophe, he did what any vigilant citizen in this part of the world would do: he called U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Drones -- also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) -- are prone to system failures and pilot mistakes. Bad weather can bring them down; relatively small and vulnerable, they can be felled by something as simple as a gust of wind. The cause of this particular El Paso crash was revealed to be a mechanical malfunction. It caused operators, who always work at a distance, to lose control of the pilotless plane. As is often the case with unmanned vehicles, it was not clear who those operators were. A Mexican Attorney General spokeswoman denied her country's involvement with the drone, but later that same day, another Mexican official said it was being operated by the Ministry of Public Security and was following a target at the time of the incident. A spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in the United States said that the drone, while belonging to Mexico, was part of an operation in coordination with the U.S. government.

The impact had opened up more than just a small hollow in the sand. It disrupted and opened the rituals of neighbors, the connectivities of machines, the routines of public agents, and the choruses of desert cicadas. It destabilized the coherency of the crashed drone itself, which, far from sitting intact, was now distributed into the routines and spaces of the various agencies that were engaged in parsing its failure, sustaining its role, or coordinating its return. At the onset of its weakened capacities, phones were dialed, conversations started. A collection of material and discursive components, it was now available for reassembly. At the international level, the accident brought into play the governmental agencies concerned with the maintenance of relations between the two countries, along with the global Israeli company Aeronoautics Defense Systems, agent of the drone's manufacture, all of whom sought to maintain the perception that the drone "works," whether in terms of mechanical infrastructure, data, or public relations. At the national level, it brought into play the investigative agencies of the National Transportation Safety Board, concerned with regulation of the skies in which UAVs travel, and the Department of Homeland Security, chief enforcing agents in the area of border protection and regulation. These arbiters of the safe and legal passage of people, traffic, and goods harnessed the drone as a case study, distributing its components within an investigative landscape of national security discourse, drug smuggling, gang violence, public health, and private commerce. At the city level, it brought into play the El Paso Fire Department, attender to the emergency and modulator of its material risk, along with the local Police Department, dispatched by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency whose presence in the region, along with its brother agencies in immigration and drug enforcement, is considerable. Unlike the Police Department, it operates its own drones.

The return of the UAV was a humble affair. The U.S. Border Patrol, in the capacity of several agents and a van, pulled up to an international bridge in a cloud of smoke and dust. They stepped out of the vehicle, extracted the drone from the rear, and handed it back to Mexican officials. Perhaps a ceremony of some kind was involved, but the handing over of the drone was, in terms of physical exertion, fairly easy, since it was in the "Mini" class -- an Orbiter Mini UAV -- with a total wingspan of about seven feet. The entire system, disassembled, fits into a backpack.

The recovered drone, relatively intact, might have been reassembled quickly. According to the manufacturer's specifications, this takes about ten minutes. Yet, the UAV was dismantled by an array of forces that violated its coherency in a deeper, more long-lasting sense. Between the drone's destruction in a backyard and its delivery at a bridge, the component agencies necessary to operate and maintain it became newly revealed. Dislodged from their mainframe and rendered vulnerable, these component agencies, however operational, institutional, or discursive, become newly active in their negotiations and attachments. Phone calls are made, conversations started, extensions orchestrated. At the same time as they are distributed, however, they are consolidated -- resolved to a territorial or ontological specificity. Escaping abstraction, they become embroiled in a geopolitics that may have been overlooked or erased.

In the onset and aftermath of the catastrophe, the coherency and centrality of the drone is destabilized, its deceptive unity revealed. The "shock" of the crash dislodges conventional associations, allowing hidden infrastructures to be revealed and new ontological meanings to take shape. The drone cannot be reassembled in quite the same way.


The reassembly, if attempted, requires a new ontological framework. The development of this ontology, occasioned by the event of the catastrophe, is pursued here as a "salvage operation." It seeks the recovery in the wreckage. It is not primarily a critical endeavor but an affirmative and constructive one. The operation proceeds as follows. It begins by "rescuing" the drone's components from conventional designations and categories, in order to reassign them the status of actors -- a move that situates them in terms of their performative functions or roles. It suggests that what these actors are is what they do in the context of the environments in which they bond and circulate, and it defines this activity as that of affiliation. It describes the relational structures and organizing principles through which actors are coordinated and combined together in affiliations at various scales, magnitudes, speeds, and levels of complexity, such that they gain sufficient stability to be maintained. It foregrounds their processes of replication and standardization, across various scales and platforms of endeavor, through the emergence and maintenance of common programs.

The ontology that emerges, while focusing on the phenomenon of the drone, is applicable to embedded network systems across a number of fronts, as these networks are increasingly integrated into all kinds of physical objects, structures, and environments, endowing them with communicative ability and intelligence. As this distributed and embedded computation becomes part of the fabric of everyday life, the functions of all manner of material, spatial, and systemic actors are integrated with those of humans in composites that can sense, think, and act in the world, in ways that complicate ontological categories. The role of the human is redistributed, not eliminated. The salvage operation, then, not only helps to reveal the architectures and dynamics of unmanned systems, but the larger distributed networks of which they are a part. Using the unmanned system as a case in point, it provides an analytical framework for considering the new forms of awareness, cognition, and material agency that are emerging in distributed, data-intensive environments.

The rescue operation is far from a heroic one. When components are understood as actors, one cannot assert authority over them so easily. They are not materials to be molded, or elements to be tamed. The operation requires a more acquiescent approach, attuned to the nuances of the encounter. It privileges negotiation over control: an agile practice that, attuned to the shifting priorities of the situation, can accommodate that which is revealed therein, often unexpectedly and outside of preoccupation. The "rescuer" here must receive knowledge from the circumstances, cultivating the skill for discerning the meanings that are embodied there. It is an ethics of the event wherein the "source" of action is not fully located in the individual agent. In this sense, the salvage operation calls for a politics wherein action itself is "unmanned."

The crash, in its productive power, mobilizes potent circulations of affect, however understood in terms of attraction or avoidance. They are in play, in all their irresolute, physiological and psychological power, in the contemporary drive for drone domestication -- a desire for "drones at home" that is propelled not only by governments and corporations, but by everyday citizens. Circulating not only in the contexts of military apparatuses but in the cultures of science fiction, film, television, and video games, drones increasingly populate the social imaginary. They are sublime objects that embody a potent combination of menace and allure. The erotic appeal comes from both the effective drone striking and the failed being struck. The erotic potential of the exultant drone that gleams against a clear blue sky is also shared by the downed one, however real or virtual, that explodes in a spray of parts.

Errant Drones

While unmanned aircraft have been around since the mid-century, in various incarnations, the origin of the modern drone might be located in the 1980s, with the Searcher and Pioneer UAVs developed by Israel (who has been in the military UAV business for much longer than the U.S.). While drones were used in the first Gulf War of 1990, they did not make their appearance on the world stage until the Afghanistan and Iraq wars after September 11, 2001. Since that time, the U.S. and many other countries around the world have escalated their reliance on them. The U.S. increasingly deploys them for surveillance and bombing missions across the Middle East and North Africa. Primarily due to their perceived success in these military operations, their potential has come to be widely recognized in many sectors of the U.S. government, and pressure has been growing to allow them into domestic skies. The Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security have besieged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with requests for the flying rights of a range of pilotless planes into civilian airspace for the purpose of domestic security operations, law enforcement, and disaster relief. So far, they have obtained FAA permission to operate unmanned planes along limited zones, including the Southwest border from California to Texas. In the case of large-scale catastrophes, drones can be operated nationwide in the search for survivors.

While many countries across Asia and Latin America -- Israel, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, and Mexico, to name a few -- already allow UAVs for domestic use, and while the E.U. is planning to have them integrated into civilian airspace by 2015, the process of developing regulations in the U.S. has been slow and fraught with complication. FAA officials are concerned that, in domestic skies, there is a greater danger of collisions with smaller aircraft than in the war zones in which UAVs have been tested. The fact that UAVs come in such a wide range of scales -- the Global Hawk is as large as a small airliner, while the hand-launched Raven is just 38 inches long and weighs four pounds -- makes matters worse. The FAA is worried that drones might plow into airliners, cargo planes and corporate jets at high altitudes, or plunge into low-flying helicopters and hot air balloons. (Raven drones have been known to collide with manned helicopters in the crowded skies over Baghdad.) The rapid growth of unmanned planes of all sizes not only threatens safety in the skies but on the ground. With UAVs coming as small as the 13 inch Wasp, it is easy to imagine a tiny drone, malfunctioning or wavering offcourse, crashing not into a border-town backyard but through a living room window.

One of the FAA's key concerns is that remote operators can lose communications with the aircraft. In the world of drones, loss of communication with the aircraft can lead to loss of control. Many UAVs, when they lose a connection to ground stations, are programmed to fly off to a safety zone and try to regain contact. But often, this does not work. The plane goes renegade, disappears or plummets to earth. Loss of communication and control can occur from a systems failure, a software glitch, or, as in the case of the Mexican drone crash in El Paso, a mechanical malfunction. The drone can also be cut off by an atmospheric disturbance, a hostile interception from the ground, or an enemy hack. In one way or another, human error often plays a role, whether in the form of a faulty program, mechanical oversight, or coordination mistake.

Human error was revealed as the cause of yet another crash into the backyard of a border town residence -- this time, in a neighborhood much like El Paso but about 300 miles west, near Nogales, Arizona. The catastrophe, which occurred before sunrise in the early morning hours, was caused by a ground operator's failure to follow procedure. The failure set forth a cascade of collapse. It caused the ground control console to lock up, which caused the UAV's engine to shut down. On loss of its engine, the Predator began turning off its electrical systems to conserve power. It then descended below the minimum altitude, turned north into Arizona, and awaited further commands.

No such commands came. Operators had completely lost contact with the plane. It floated about the desert night, abandoned, aimless, and invisible. Air traffic control operators, faced with the danger of an unlocatable, headless robot lurking in the air somewhere, quickly closed off large chunks of airspace. Tucson International Airport was nearly affected. The out-of-control and powerless Predator then dove into an area of upscale ranch homes and crash-landed in the backyard of a large house.

The accident was reported when residents of the neighborhood, sleeping quietly amid the sounds of insects, television hum, and soft rustling leaves, were awakened by the explosion. The scale of this pilotless plane, a Predator B built by the California-based company General Atomics, is as large as some commuter airliners -- nearly ten times larger than that of the Mini UAV in the El Paso incident -- and undoubtedly, its resounding crash at this hour elicited no small degree of alarm. The plane missed two houses by about 200 feet. Abruptly catapulted from their beds in a violent crescendo of machine grind, metallic crush and earth upheaval, these homeowners may have first called emergency services. However in this case too, a call to U.S. Customs and Border Protection might have been most appropriate, since this was the agency that was operating the plane.

The downed drone, smoldering amongst the cactus, scrub brush, and sand sage in a cloud of smoke and dirt, was most likely a peculiar sight. A twisted geometry of spilt forms and unmasked roles, of networks sought and broken, it now offered itself to connection, continuity, and salvage. Among the spilled cables, machine parts, microprocessors, storage units, and sensors that were dislodged by its slam to earth there would have been little trace of human presence. In the place of a cabin, within which pilots, sitting amongst angular consoles, molded door panels, and worn seats, work the controls that are sculpted around them, there is only a solid, bulbous mass teeming with hardware and data flows. The violent spray of metal, electronics, rubber, and engine fumes that is released by the impact would have contained few shards of glass, for there are no windows that line the plane's dense hollow and no monitors within its confines. There are only the tiniest portals of cameras and sensors, peering downward out of its underbelly, sucking in data from the ground below.

Drone Desire

The demand for unmanned vehicles is not limited to the military, homeland security, and law enforcement. Civilians, too, want their drones! Tornado researchers want to send them into storms to gather data. Energy companies crave their use for geological surveying and pipeline monitoring. Security companies want to send them up for new surveillance applications. Commercial upstarts yearn to service them and train their operators.

Perhaps the most visible drone desire is that of the everyday consumer. Homegrown drones sprout up everywhere, their production and operation facilitated by an expanding network of hobbyist groups and blogger communities. Ignited by their prominent roles in sci-fi literature, television, and film, drones populate social and cultural imaginaries. They appeal to generations of gamers, who relate to the control interfaces through which they are operated and the first-person-shooter style images that are streamed from them, often accessed on the very same computer screens upon which these games are played. Flying a drone is like playing a game, and drones often populate games. User-generated websites like DIY Drones, information resources like Dronepedia, and drone applications for mobile phones that allow actual drones to be controlled and virtual ones gamed together function as social networking platforms, recreational outlets, and learning environments. They serve as catalysts for the development of shared, distributed forms of thinking and practice, bringing into play new knowledges and skills. Building and flying a drone might require one to learn principles of aerodynamics, airframe engineering, robotics, photography, and piloting via radio control. It requires awareness of regulations on the ground and in the air, however social or environmental, and the skillful management of one's identity and stature within groups. The need to display knowledge, talent, and agility is often a driving force, whether in competition or cooperation.

There is an erotic dimension to this sharing, acquisition of expertise, and display of prowess. One might build drones because, as one suburban teenage DIY blogger puts it, they are a "chick magnet." Drone display flourishes out of backyards, streets, abandoned lots, and open fields, and in the consequent posting of video and photographic documentation on social networking sites. Nestled amid the sagebrush along the California side of the U.S./Mexico border is even a small DIY drone airfield. Makeshift and unkempt, devoid of pavement and infrastructure, it is remarkable in its absence of the gathered assemblies of amateur pilots, planes, and spectators for which it is intended. One might well overlook it, yet perhaps in some way it serves as a model of sorts, a harbinger of airports to come: a preview of what drone airfields might look like, writ large, in their absence of traditional control platforms and optical infrastructures. Much like this one, the unmanned airport would contain no centralized control tower presiding over the runway and no lighting tracks reflecting its contours. There is no need for a commanding view from above. The distributed and windowless drone, devoid of any interior, requires no human sightline for its flight. In an operational sense, its trajectory is not visual. Geometries of looking, whether from a cockpit or a control tower, have been replaced by networks of sensing, some visually oriented, but most not. Interior/exterior relations, at least in any conventional, spatially-continuous sense, diminish in their structuring relevance.

If the drone were to provide a model of subjectivity, it would not be defined by a logics of enclosure. There is no incomplete interiority to be recuperated. There are no external objects to drone desire, only internal parts of its distributed architecture, opaque to observation. So, too, with those who would harness the drone's allure for the purpose of erotic display: there are no counterparts to an erotics within which all desiring agents are immanent.


For the drone aficionado of all sorts, drones are curious, kick-ass, and cute, a potent combination of menace and allure, and in this combination, one might embody in them the workings of the sacred or the sublime. Hence the erotic potential of the image of the shiny drone, glowing against a clear blue sky, as well as the smashed one, twisted amongst the desert brush.

The erotics can spill into the realm of politics, mobilizing civilian groups in the pursuit of social and political causes, united under the sign of the drone. Of the vigilante groups who now fly drones along the U.S./Mexico border, the most visible and technologically advanced is the American Border Patrol. Its UAV, a ramshackle plane called the Border Hawk, is operated from a ground control station on a private ranch situated on the Southeastern Arizona borderlands. Endeavoring to provide public access to transmissions that are usually shrouded in secrecy, the group streams all of its drone video footage live on the web.

The plane's inaugural flight took place over the San Pedro River, a popular site of cross border activity. To ensure that the drone proved effective in spotting actual, living people, volunteers from the American Border Patrol masqueraded as illegal border crossers. Jutting to and fro, stealthily wending their way across the harsh desert borderland, conscious of the view from above, they mimicked the very people they aimed to target, adopting their renegade behavior in a caricature of criminality. The complex pleasures of crossing over in this manner, through appearance, disposition, and demeanor, are well known to the deviant maneuvering to "pass," with whatever degree of conformity and sacrifice this might entail. These pleasures are often undetectable to those who man the optics: visual mastery is privileged over groundlevel display, at the expense of any awareness of the correspondences of self that the targeter finds reflected, extended, and propagated in the scope.

As glimpsed in the amateur officiality of their nomenclature, groups like these straddle the line between governmental and non-governmental agency. Aiming to assist the Border Patrol in the apprehension of illegal immigrants, they see themselves as providing a valuable public service, filling in the gaps among the limited number of Border Patrol agents that are available to patrol the entire 2,000-mile stretch. At the same time, they regard themselves operating as government watchdogs. Suspicious of their state apparatus and disillusioned by the ideologies of their generation, these groups, dominated by retired military and security men, patrol the border as if in search of something far more than illegal activity: the recuperable myth of white male privilege. Situated far from the contemporary sci-fi imaginary, they seem to embody, instead, the genre of the Western -- the pre-technological harbinger of its cyber-frontierism. Drifting about the desolate landscape, drones at the ready, they guard their version of the American Dream.


Allowing unmanned aircraft into domestic space heightens a number of civil liberties concerns. It expands the government's ability to surveil its citizens -- adding to its already substantial patrol arsenal of sensors, night vision scopes, video surveillance systems, directional listening devices, and data mining systems. The cameras on drones like the Predator can read a license plate from two miles up; the electro-optical sensor systems of the Global Hawk can identify an object the size of a milk carton from an altitude of 60,000 feet. And while domestic drones are not presently armed, they can be easily outfitted with weaponry -- as they were after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when Predators were quickly armed with Hellfire missiles (fired, frequently, at the wrong targets). Drone strikes often slip into the cracks between regulatory domains; their responsible parties, often combinations of actors working across the boundaries of national governments and domestic agencies, are difficult to pinpoint. Among the thousands of deaths that America's drone strikes abroad have caused, there is little accountability. The CIA alone -- an agency responsible for many of them -- functions without the oversight and accountability that the U.S. demands of its armed services.

Many of these concerns are superseded by the drone's allure. Even when considering social costs and ethics, the use of drones is widely supported by the general public. Guarding the border is understood to be paramount to U.S. national security, and the practicalities of domestic security loom large. Politicians do not want to risk appearing "soft" on border security. They argue that UAVs could operate as "force multipliers" allowing the Border Patrol to deploy fewer agents and improve coverage along remote and sparsely patrolled sections. The synthetic-aperture radar, infrared sensors, and electro-optical cameras on a UAV like the Global Hawk can provide the capability to survey over 60,000 square miles a day. According to Homeland Security, UAVs have proved their effectivity, helping to intercept thousands of illegal immigrants and pounds of drugs.

In a more general sense, it is widely understood that unmanned systems, for both military and domestic security operations -- considering, for the moment, that this distinction still stands -- are the wave of the future. The Department of Defense has invested aggressively in their development and use, and by Congressional mandate, this investment must continue to increase. The perceived advantages are many. As with many robotic systems, drones are unhampered by the physiological and psychological limitations of humans; they can easily take on jobs that are dirty, dangerous or dull. They can stay aloft and loiter for prolonged periods of time, persisting on targets over ten times longer than piloted aircraft, at far less cost. The human risk factor, at least on the U.S. side, is vastly reduced. As a general rule, drones do not result in the injuries and deaths of their crews.

But they do crash.

They crash frequently, with accident rates many times higher than that of manned aircraft.

They crash not only into American border regions and backyards but into global hotbeds of military activity.

They have slammed into Sunni political headquarters in Mosul, Iraq. Nose-dived into the Wales airport runway. Struck power lines and cut off power in Alberta Canada. Vanished into Pakistan's tribal region in North Waziristan. Plummeted into uninhabited terrain near Ghanzi, Afghanistan and the Indian/Pakistani border. Collapsed into the Gaza Strip. Plunged into the Mojave Desert. Disappeared into Turkey's desolate Mardin province. Cannonballed into the coast of Spain. Ditched into the Iraqi countryside. Rolled with scrub brush across the rough desert terrain near Indian Springs, Nevada. The Italian Air Force has discovered one of its downed drones floating along the surface of the Adriatic Sea, its body glistening in the sunlight like the bleached skin of a whale.

If a demo reel of Oscar-worthy drone crash moments were assembled -- perhaps in order to pitch the drone for a starring role in the ubiquitous action-adventure movie -- it would be composed of clips like these. In true commercial fashion, it would seek to harness the drone's menace and its allure, its potent combination of desire and threat. Like any good object of desire, it would give us what we want and what we fear. As a conduit of identification and affect, it would allow us to extend ourselves, in all our sensory acuity, into a landscape devoid of everyday political rationales and ethical or moral judgments: to plunge headlong into the melee.

The resulting drone crash action-adventure documentary would be geared for the everyday viewer primed for the economies of disaster, of pleasurable violence transmitted on private screens -- sites where drone games are played and drone missions consumed. Its trailer might go something like this. Ground control operators have suddenly lost control of an armed Reaper flying a combat mission over Afghanistan. A manned U.S. Air Force fighter is dispatched to shoot down the renegade drone before it flies beyond the edge of Afghan airspace. (In the world of robotic warfare, human pilots are apparently still good for something: shooting down wayward drones.) The tension builds: disciplined man against chaotic unmanned.

The fighter plane arrives too late. The renunciant Reaper, speeding headlong into its own future, crashes into the side of a mountain. Abstracted in a shower of engine oil, smoke, lost data, and crushed metal, its dissipating fuselage drops. Amplified in a rush of sensation and adrenaline, its absorbing body elevates.

Salvage Operations

When UAVs crash, they provide a bounty of potentially valuable information and parts. Their databases are rendered vulnerable to access, their components susceptible to retooling -- absorbed into affiliations that can enhance the warfare capacity of foes. In order to prevent enemies from obtaining sensitive materials, almost every drone crash involves an intensive recovery operation.

It can be difficult to secure the wreckage. When a Canadian UAV crashed around three kilometers from the U.S. military base at Ma'Sum Ghar in western Kandahar province, American military forces were too late: within 22 minutes, the drone had been fully stripped and hauled away by locals. If a recovery is not possible in time, a drone may be destroyed by its own government: British special forces once bombed a Reaper that had crashed in Afghanistan, in order to prevent its parts falling into the hands of the Taliban. Smaller drones like the Raven often simply disappear into the hands of enemies, as they have frequently in Iraq.

A U.S. Predator crashes in Jahayn, a remote village in Yemen. Local residents, who frequently complain of the noise that the widely-used drones make as they relentlessly circulate in the skies overhead -- some say it sounds like a lawnmower -- most likely meet this downed drone with some degree of relief. Discovering the wreckage, they call the police. The felled drone is recovered, hauled away from the oil-stained sand. As the convoy heads back, however, it is intercepted by gunmen. The armed rebels, reported to belong to Al-Qaeda, hijack the crashed plane. The Yemeni Ministry of Defense dismisses these reports as baseless rumors. How solid is its claim? According to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, the Yemeni government deliberately covered up the crash of a previous American drone, the Scan Eagle, claiming that the aircraft, which washed up on the coast of Hadramout, was an Iranian spy plane.

Unlike the smooth coordination of agencies involved in the El Paso incident, which resulted in the crashed UAV's return to Mexico, there is no handing over of the drone by the Yemeni government. It scatters into the routines and spaces of renegade agencies. Its parts, however material or discursive, are absorbed into other systems of meaning and affect, however straight or wayward, countered or modulated, amplified or diminished.

The dispersion, more the rule than the exception, is always accompanied by gathering, a consolidation. As the drone's material parts, each endowed with a distinct spatial boundary, are assembled in a coherent, stabilized form, its discursive components are often consolidated into a linear narrative -- outfitted with a beginning and an end. Which story to believe and invest in? One will most likely prevail: a descriptive phrase, like a material part, seeks consistency, endurance, and relevance, of which those that work best for the task at hand, or become most useful, achieve a higher degree.

At the onset of the El Paso crash, Mexican officials were pressed to speak. Citing national security concerns, they dodged the inquiries -- replying, as most government officials do, that all information related to unmanned aircraft systems is classified as restricted. The dodging is typical. Governments will disclose the nature and quantity of their UAV operations and arsenals only when hard pressed, and only when drones drift -- or rather, plunge -- into the public sphere, often in the form of an accident. The CIA has a highly active but covert drone program -- its bat-winged Sentinel stealth drone played a role in Osama bin Laden's capture -- but while drone crashes are publicly acknowledged by agencies like the U.S. Air Force, its accident figures are never released. Crashes in the "Mini" and "Micro" classes are seldom if ever reported by anyone.

Even when UAV failures are acknowledged, the technical details are often obscured in bureaucratic maneuverings. Officials of the National Transportation Safety Board, who are still parsing the cause of the El Paso incident, say that a typical investigation can take almost a year. Even when finally released, the accident reports of military institutions can be difficult to decipher. Inquiries regarding drone crashes in the testing and marketing stages fall into the cracks between private companies and client governments. When pressed about the details of a catastrophe, manufacturing companies often reply that they were ordered by governmental officials not to discuss the details, as Lockheed did when asked about the crash of its Polecat UAV.

In spite of these maneuverings, the crash, as an event, cannot be contained, and this is precisely the source of its compelling power. Destabilized, its parts scattered, it cannot be reassembled, however hastily, in quite the same way -- in spite of the considerable rhetorical power that might be mobilized to accomplish this feat. Fault lines appear, allowing new discursive openings.

Stories develop coherence, weaving together disparate parts into a whole, yet they also create separation where there was none. Conversations gather around the event as it reverberates through its discursive agents, whether official agencies through their portals or gathered friends at social settings. As there are entire websites devoted to the drone's fetishization as an object, there is a growing body of interest in its destruction and disappearance: drone crash lore. Stories are woven around downed drones and their sites, however accurate they might be or outrageously fabricated they might seem, and enfolded into all manner of drone sightings and speculations. As UAVs are outgrowths of the histories of UFOs and robotics, as they have been integrally tied to warfare, war technology, and anxieties of invasion, however real or fictional, at least since the mid-twentieth century, the inevitable corporate and national spin that is woven around the accident and its aftermath is often, as with mid-century UFO crashes, seen as a coverup or conspiracy. As with many news reports, intentions are interpolated in ways that conform to one's own beliefs, and in a world of viral media, even reports that seem ridiculous are given legs. At one time three U.S. drones were reported to have been deliberately flown into the dome atop the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr. The reports of this event can still be found online with a simple search. Such stories propagate with little or no verification, especially as they activate the imaginary, affirm ideological orientation, and offer easy munitions in wars of attention.

Conversations intersect with or spin off into others, amplifying or diminishing in scale and intensity as they become harnessed to personal concerns, anxieties, and desires, aligned with group imaginaries and ethical codes, and enabled by communications platforms. They might involve the particularities of technology and impact site, the vagaries of luck and community governance, or the generalities of warfare, nationhood, freedom, and oppression. They might stabilize into stories, some propagating and enduring, some vanishing by sunrise. They might create new conflicts or fuel existing ones, produce new images and dreams, rearrange or reinforce existing routines. They might obscure specific details, overlook obvious connections, or forge entirely new ones.

As these conversational actors magnify or wane, speed up or decelerate, and accumulate relevance, influence, and intimacy, so, too, does the material event that they draw from -- the material occurrence with which they have entered into affiliation. Agential networks and events are intricately tied together and mutually influencing. At the most basic level, even causality and temporality are up for negotiation.

In this way the narratives that are woven around the drone's fate -- circulated around crash sites, dinner tables, cookouts, online forums and board rooms -- have a vitality. They are social actors that negotiate realities even as they are negotiated by them. Yet the fate of the drone's carcass is but one narrativized outcome of a much larger and more vital function that the catastrophe performs. The crash is important because it destabilizes the coherency of the drone and embroils it in a politics that was heretofore invisible or diminshed.

At the onset of the catastrophe, the drone and its component material and discursive actors, occasioned by the reverberations of the event, are catapulted into a more public space, rendered newly exposed and available for affiliation. The agential components of event and drone become newly active in their negotiations. The catastrophe reveals an agential dispersal: the network of the negotiation.

Yet at the same time, revealing the elements with which actors and events affiliate in order to maintain their centrality and force, the catastrophe orchestrates a consolidation. It stabilizes relatively coherent or consistent forms -- however spatial, linguistic, affective, or rhythmic -- that embody or heighten the specifics of the crash site, the actor, the part, rendering it singular, bounded, and unique. The drone crash, both materially and discursively, is an event that both disrupts and congeals the dynamic. It provides an exception, but also an amplification.


The El Paso crash, in its dispersions, helped reveal the specific details of Mexico's UAV program. Until then, it was not publicly known that Mexico was using drones along the border. To maintain this level of focus on the drone is to amplify its history, its manufacture -- how it came to exist in a specific built form. Mexico operates a fleet of drones purchased from three Israeli companies -- Aeronoautics Defense Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries, and Elbit Systems. The Heron UAVs that it has purchased from Israel Aerospace Industries have also been sold to Canada, Turkey, and Ecuador, where the company now has a branch office, in addition to its offices in Brazil, Colombia, and Chile. Elbit Systems, in addition to selling its UAVs to Mexico, has also sold them to the U.S., U.K., Singapore, Croatia, Georgia, and Brazil, where it has a subsidiary, AEL Sistemas. Drones are marketed to these countries for a variety of purposes including jamming signals, locating enemy satellite dishes, spotting drug plantations or cartel hideouts, or monitoring police forces for corruption. The specificity of drone manufacture, when pursued, opens out into multiple corridors, each of which can be followed to reveal others: networks of affiliation that operate at a number of scales, magnitudes, and degrees of stability, from research to assembly to testing and marketing. Zooming out to the largest consolidating scale, the production and consumption of UAVs is a global phenomenon, with about 60 manufacturers operating in at least 48 countries. The U.S. military is the single largest consumer. Along with their manufacture and selling, drone operation is also a trans-national endeavor: the Turkish Herons that Canada owns, for example, are flown and operated in Afghanistan by the Australian Air Force. So, too, with drone training and logistics.

The geographical specificity of the material event reveals the distinct spatial politics in which these distributed drone economies are embroiled -- economies that, in their vast scale and speed, and in their considerable rhetorical arsenals, blur impact at groundlevel. The site tells its own story. The Mexican Orbiter drone crash in Texas occurred in a specific spot on the earth, its collision etched onto the ground of a unique El Paso backyard, its temporal streams collapsed into a singular date and standardized time. The impact occurred on December 14, 2010 around 6:25pm. The site is located on Craddock Avenue near South Yarborough Drive, in the city's Lower Valley neighborhood. It is just over the border from Ciudad Juarez, one of Mexico's key epicenters of violence. The drone could have easily landed there, amidst the very region that it was clearly intended to monitor -- a region where rival drug cartels battle for control over smuggling and drug trafficking routes, their caches filled with American weaponry, and thousands of killings occur each year.

The contrasts of these two sites could not be more extreme. The operation of American and Mexican drones along this stretch of border -- often only glimpsed in terms of their failures -- reveals its specific geographical, social, and political climates, as it is sliced through with a border barricade, surrounded with a surveillance apparatus, and embroiled in discourses around domestic security and drug use. For politicians, ever more intricately connected to the global economies of drone manufacture, sales, and operation, the "force multiplying" factor of UAVs saves lives, increases manpower, improves coverage, enhances relations, and reduces crime. It draws a harder line in the soft desert borderland.

However hardened, the line is breached ever more intricately by the trade of weapons, people, and narcotics, much of it driven by U.S. demand. The violence in the Juarez region is of such a scale and nature that it has been analogized to that of an insurgency. (The Mexican Army has been known to go into the city bearing artillery.) If, indeed, this is true, then perhaps, like others of its kind abroad, this insurgent force has the capability of jamming the signals that UAVs rely on, causing them to go astray or out of control. The material specificity of the event reveals its technological infrastructures, however actualized or latent. The GPS signals necessary to steer drones and locate their targets are weak and easily interfered with, as are the electromagnetic waves generated by radio signals, computers, electronic equipment, and various other machines. Spurious, unidentified signals can cause engines to mysteriously shut down (as they have with Bell Helicopter's Eagle Eye UAV -- a signal whose mysterious source has never been identified).

Perhaps the Mexican Orbiter went off course into Texas because it was hacked. The drone's devices and communications are vulnerable because many of its software and electronics components are "off the shelf," riding on existing structures. About 95% of the military's communications travel over commercial telecom networks, including satellite systems. The DIY drone jammer may have a political aim, but, as with its hobbyist counterpart, there is a creative and erotic dimension to this acquisition of expertise, skill, and display of prowess. It can amplify stature and social currency. As drones populate the imaginary through games, sci-fi literature, television, and film, so, too, does the hacker ethic, often embodied in the agency of the hero. Bringing down a drone can engender as much affective thrill as launching one: the jouissance of the crash reverberates across the body that it helps render social, firing up electro-chemical connections and igniting its sensorium. In keeping with the ethos of DIY cultures, the "stupidity" or simplicity of homegrown solutions is prized: a quotidian "know-how" that resists the dictates of commercial knowledge production regimes. The underdog sweeps in to score -- the resurgent rebel fighter who, in the nick of time, shoots down the vessel of the oppressor.


As the material specificity of the event reveals its deeper technological substratum, the renegade force that is the drone's undoing may be buried within the machine, in a site where human agency is much harder to locate. A U.S. Air Force Global Hawk, the largest unmanned plane in the military's arsenal, was once brought down by a small, renegade part. An investigation into the crash revealed that the plane's rudder had become loose during a previous mission. It was not detected on routine maintenance checks. During the fatal flight, it began flapping uncontrollably. Though comparatively small, this particular part plays a crucial role, and its flailing was persistent enough to destabilize the mammoth plane and send it plummeting to earth.

Failures of the Global Hawk are not uncommon. The Air Force had lost two of them just before the excessively flapping rudder catastrophe. The first crash was due to a simple input error: the plane was programmed to taxi at 178 miles per hour. The second was due to operators inadvertently engaging a self-destruct code while the plane was aloft. Ooops!

Inquiries into the maintenance of the rudder, the programming of the mission, and the writing of the code reveal the drone's concealed infrastructures -- its systems of operation, logistics, and maintenance. For most American drone operations abroad, ground crews service the mechanical systems of the planes at regional bases in war zones, as flight crews operate them thousands of miles away, out of Ground Control Stations (GCS) at Air Force bases in Nevada (and soon to be joined by bases in Arizona, California, and Texas). Most U.S. drone missions are flown by pilots stationed at Creech, a military outpost in the barren Nevada desert. (Some GCS locations are classified secret or top secret.) The material realities and infrastructures of these bases, along with their geographical and institutional embeddedness, play a large role, as do the highly specific, routine practices they register and call forth. The nondescript buildings and converted trailers out of which drones are operated are oddly humble, given the considerable expense of the UAV program. They sit isolated amid the vast desert landscape, parked amongst the scrub brush. If not for the barbed wire around their peripheries, one could mistake them for the typical mobile home encamped at any trailer park in the American southwest, replete with enormous satellite dishes and cables that link them to the world beyond.

While the manning of each UAV system depends on the size and complexity of the aircraft and payload, a typical GCS might require a flight team of four. A pilot maneuvers the plane and is the chief person responsible. A sensor operator manipulates cameras and sensing devices. A mission monitor receives requests from "customers" and sends them required images or information. A flight engineer monitors the status of the aircraft. While the ground crews wrestle with the vagaries of small parts, the flight engineer monitors their operational states in the form of technical data arrayed on one of the crew's displays. Another display contains navigational data: GPS signals and other locational data downloaded via satellite transmission and translated as coordinates on a GIS, for use in directing the plane and positioning targets. Another display contains image data: the drone's view from above.

A datalink -- line of sight or patched through satellite -- allows two-way communication between the GCS and the UAV. As data flows connect the remotely-assembled flight crew to the plane, they also connect the plane and flight crew to intelligence teams and arrangements of commanders and troops elsewhere on the ground. Command centers receive the UAV feed via Remote Video Terminals, Remote Receiving Stations, or from other data patch from the GCS; a typical center might receive dozens of such remote video and sensor feeds, from the air and ground. Multiple entities may receive the same UAV signal simultaneously or one location may receive it directly and then share it with others via other transmitted or hard-wired networks. These links and flows are determined through existing connections, platforms, and procedural agencies, yet at the same time, they help instantiate them. Transmitted signals are modulated and rendered discrete as code, in concert with the actors -- programs, hardware, organizations, personnel -- that rely on them. As they flow through actors, they are filtered, constrained, related, and interpreted, and in the context of this activity, materiality is enacted -- configured through limitation and correspondence.

Most of the algorithmic and machinic operations necessary to operate the plane and negotiate its trajectories across geographical, national, and institutional territories are those that bypass the corporeal agency of personnel. The plane flies as an affiliation of maintained and monitored states through the activity of a multiplicity of actors -- human, mechanical, informational, environmental, or institutional. These actors operate at various scales and levels of complexity, whether at the level of hardware, software, image, data, controls, flight or ground crews, or at the scale of logistical support, service, or operator and maintenance training.

Through it all, the rudders remain stable. The transmissions are cleared, the connections maintained. Collective intelligence and skill emerges for operation. Hardware, personnel, and supplies are integrated into tactical formations. Communication protocols and pathways fit together in stable systems. Ideas fit together in doctrines. These actors stabilize and cohere because of the procedural structures, standards, and programs of the higher-order affiliations into which they fit -- affiliations that might exist at the level of algorithm, hardware, or logistics, or at the local, the regional, or the national.

The component actors within these affiliations are relatively discrete and stabilized. Yet they are active: they band and disband, accumulate and release, extend and consolidate. Some links are weak and some more solid. A dispatch is simple while a doctrine is complex. Even internally, composites that would seem to be solid and enduring are embroiled in bandwidth battles and interservice rivalries. All must be actively maintained, with varying levels of frequency and force.

The "salvage operation" -- the "recovery" of the drone's sensitive materials -- begins by disengaging these components from conventional ontological categories, and instead, regarding them in terms of their performative functions or roles. What these actors are is what they do in the environments of the affiliations in which they bond and circulate. They do not sit idly, severed from the world of their making, but affiliate and perform in active, systemic and routinized fields through which their ontological distinctions and functions are redistributed. To understand individual actors in terms of their relevant practices -- the functions they perform in the organization of the affiliation -- is not to minimize their singular materiality. The "recovery" operation, in "restoring" actors to their performative activity, places specificity and distribution, part and practice, consolidation and multiplicity, together on the same analytical plane.

Since affiliations, and their component actors, come to perform in certain ways, at various scales and speeds, with varying degrees of reliability, influence, and intimacy, the next step in the salvage operation is to explore how they come to perform -- the relational structures and organizing principles through which they are coordinated and combined together at various scales, magnitudes, speeds, and levels of complexity, and the mechanisms through which this is sustained. The next step involves opening up the possibility that these components can be hacked, retooled, reprogrammed -- appropriated into new patterns of use. The operation is not primarily reductive and critical but affirmative and constructive: the production and mapping of new ontological platforms, epistemological itineraries, and political possibilities.

[ continue reading part II: Ontologies of the Drone & Amplifying Expertise ]


Author's Note: All of the UAV crashes mentioned in this essay are based on actual crashes, although I have taken some degree of poetic license in their description. The details and dates of each are discoverable through a simple web search. I have chosen not to footnote them. I have chosen to dispense with footnotes entirely. The scholarly reader will see the intellectual debts of many of my concepts, which are drawn from vitalist philosophy, object-oriented ontology, and feminist science studies, along with theories of affect informed by the life sciences. They owe much to assemblage theory, actor-network theory, and agential realism, among other work that develops alternatives to modernist frameworks of subjectivity. I have avoided footnoting this material for several reasons. I want to combine traditional forms of scholarly research with approaches drawn from the worlds of visual art, literature, and performance -- inspired, for example, by writers who are experimenting with critical fiction from an anthropological perspective. I want to energize and amplify the performative dimensions of the worlds of human and nonhuman actors of which I speak. Such a course of study, rather than imposing argumentative convention, requires attunement to the unexpected priorities of the encounter and the novel forms of articulation that emerge. It challenges one to forge new concepts that may take on a life of their own, like good fictional characters, and at times exceed the boundaries of traditional forms.


Theory Beyond the Codes: tbc027
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors
Date Published: 11/2/2011