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<nettime> Drone Ontology
actor on Sat, 22 Dec 2012 05:03:59 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Drone Ontology

Ontology of the Drone
Jordan Crandall

We begin this analysis from the tail end, rather than the front. Not with
the eyes, but with the ass. We start at the bottom and work our way up.
When we finally arrive at the helm, we may be a bit greasy.

When seen from below, the tiniest component can assume large-scale
relevance, can have the biggest effects. We ignore it at our peril. A
Global Hawk ? the largest unmanned plane in the U.S. military?s arsenal ?
was once brought down by a RUDDER. As the hulking, ungainly vehicle
rumbled through the sky, resembling a strange sea creature with no eyes,
this lowly steering device swerved back and forth at the tail end, lodged
within the fin. Its motion was irregular, owing to the fact that it had
become loosened during a previous mission. During the fatal flight, it
began flapping uncontrollably. Its excessive flailing created, over time,
a sufficient degree of destabilization to cripple the mammoth plane and
send it plummeting to earth.

In the event of a failure, inquiries are launched, explanations set into
motion. Probes are conducted into ? in this case ? the maintenance of the
rudder, the programming of the mission, the writing of the code. They
reveal the drone?s concealed infrastructures, its systems of operation,
logistics, and maintenance. When delving into this subterranean level,
parts take on new relevancies and meanings, for they are always linked
with other components in shared functions that complicate their
discreteness. The roles that they play are always contingent, connected
across scales in relational couplings that are hard to fathom. Even the
smallest coupling can be of paramount importance.

In certain cases, the rudder might be viewed as an autonomous entity. A
human observer might isolate the form, regard it in terms of its material
and functional specificity, marvel at the contours of its design. Its
smooth, curved shape is the material outcome of the need to harness the
properties of moving air ? to maximize the efficiency of the interactions
between air and the solid bodies that move through it. Yet without the
input of information or power, the device does nothing. It is simply a
control platform, a surface that awaits command. The control is provided
by an actuator (a motor). The rudder is attached to its output hub and
secured in place with hinges.

At the most basic scale, the rudder?s job is very simple. It moves back
and forth along a set range of motion in accordance with received
instruction. When we move up in scale, this action stays the same, but the
task changes. At a larger scale, its job is to change the shape of the
tail fin?s surface and subsequently vary the amount of force that it
generates. At a still larger scale, its job is to control movement of the
plane about its vertical axis ? to change the horizontal direction in
which the nose is pointing.

In order to accomplish these tasks, the rudder must work in conjunction
with the plane?s other directional control surfaces. The cooperation
occurs across a number of fronts. Actuators drive control platforms at
their own local scale (such as at the tail or wing), in ways that alter
their aerodynamic features, and these movements, in turn, alter the
aerodynamic characteristics of the larger-scale platform of the plane. The
overall cooperative job is to provide stability for the aircraft ? to keep
it straight in flight.

The actuator assumes command based on the control signals that it
receives. It converts these control signals to physical actions. Its
ability to drive its platform well requires that it receive informed
operational instructions. In order for this to occur, environmental
conditions must be detected and measured, the data processed by the flight
computers, and the necessary information exchanged via transmitters and
receivers. The flight computers send relevant information to operating
crews and other teams of actors who might be involved with launch and
recovery elements, maintenance and logistical support systems, mission
command and control, or image processing and dissemination. Flight
engineers at ground control stations monitor operational states via
technical data arrayed on displays. Pilots navigate by GPS signals and
other locational data downloaded by satellite transmission and translated
as coordinates on geographic information systems.

The correct data, once assembled into coherent control signals, instruct
the actuators to drive their respective control platforms. The plane is
steered and its relative position, speed, and attitude are adjusted in
accordance with this instruction, and a cohesive flight is (it is hoped)

The plane?s actuator-platform affiliation, then, works in conjunction with
a multiplicity of actors whose functions are to sense, process, and
communicate the relevant information. The vehicle?s countless other
affiliations, working across various scales of operation, are all
dependent upon the kinds of couplings that they seek out or afford.
Because of the rudder?s properties ? its material quality, density,
curvature, and texture ? it has the capacity to deflect and contour the
air that flows into it. When coupled with a motor that has the capacity to
move it, the rudder-actuator is endowed with the more complex property of
back-and-forth motion. When it is coupled with an instructor capable of
commanding it, the mechanism activates its potential to change the shape
of the tail fin?s surface. It now achieves its capacity to vary the amount
of force it generates. When working in conjunction with the plane?s other
directional control mechanisms, with their different capacities to vary
force levels, it has the capacity to control the movement of the plane
around its vertical axis.

The unmanned aerial system operates as an affiliation of maintained and
monitored states through the activity of actors that might be 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, or flight or ground crews,
or at the scale of logistical support, service, or operator and
maintenance training. The affiliations that they constitute are practices
as much as object-configurations, systems as much as parts. As data flows
connect the flight crew to the plane, they also connect the plane and
flight crew to intelligence teams and arrangements of commanders and
troops on the ground or in the air. Their 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 programs,
hardware, organizations, and personnel that rely on them. As they flow
through such actors, the signals are filtered, constrained, related, and
interpreted, and in the context of this activity the bounds and locales of
materiality are enacted.

Through it all, the rudders remain stable. The transmissions are cleared,
the connections enabled. Collective intelligence and skill emerge 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. The component actors within
these ecologies 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 durable. A dispatch is
simple, whereas a doctrine is complex. Even internally, composites that
would seem to be solid are embroiled in bandwidth battles and interservice
rivalries. All must be actively maintained, with varying levels of
frequency and force.

Even though they operate at different scales and levels of complexity,
these components and ecologies are somehow integrated into coherent,
stable formations that can be replicated and relied upon. Contexts are
created, communication among components facilitated, and inferences from
data drawn. They stabilize and cohere because of the procedural structures
and standards of the higher-order affiliations into which they fit ?
networked, scalar concealments that might exist at the algorithm,
hardware, or logistics level, or at the local, regional, or national
scale. The tasks performed, whether at the small scale of control surfaces
or the large scale of control infrastructures, are accomplished by linking
to other affiliations and functioning in accordance with them in terms of
common programs.

It is a matter of the modality of the linking. It is a process of bonding,
synchronization, calibration, and agreement that, occurring across
components and systems functioning at different speeds, scales,
magnitudes, and levels of complexity, does not involve simply a
conventional relational structure. The difficult question is not how
actors relate to one another, but how they gather together to stabilize in
cohesive wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. It is a matter
of how, once sufficiently stabilized, they replicate, become redundant,
and standardize, at various scales, across various platforms of endeavor.

The functions of sensing, processing, communicating, and actuating are
distributed, shared, and consolidated across a number of ontological
platforms. Many biological and machinic assemblages perform all of these
functions. At the most basic level, all component actors are sensors and
transmitters of energy. They emit and absorb electro-chemical signals,
vibrations, and electric or nervous impulses. They filter and calibrate
affective, rhythmic, and linguistic flows in ways that increase or
diminish their ability to apprehend, act, and materialize. The
foundational structure of this relationality is not based solely on
difference. Actors may consolidate as discrete entities, yet they also
vibrate in terms of constrained transmissions and modulated thresholds,
however approached, attained, or crossed. Relationality involves the
correspondence of elements, yet also involves the limitation of flows.

Conventional ontological categories recede and performative functions rise
to the fore: the scalar roles that agencies perform. Functions are always
consolidated in the specificities of actors, which might be human,
institutional, technological, spatial, or representational in nature.
These actors achieve a level of discreteness, in concert with external
agencies that rely on them. But the challenge is to hold specificity and
distribution together ? placing part and practice, component and system,
together on the same analytical plane. The drone is a rigid flying
platform, yet it is also a dynamic system defined by the atmospheric,
technological, and institutional systems that it moves through.

The rudder?s direction in manned aircraft was once manipulated by a pilot
who moved a pair of foot pedals. Although most of the Global Hawk?s
operations are the result of programming and commanding the autopilot?s
computers ? a rudder command is sent encrypted via fibre optic overseas
cable and satellite and takes about three seconds to reach the plane ?
this does not mean that the agency of the pilot has been fully replaced by
a program or relocated in one human crew member at one site. It is a
matter of looking at the distribution and embeddedness of the piloting
function ? understanding how its capacities have been redistributed in
sensing, processing, and actuating affiliations at various scales and
consolidated in new clusters of ontological significance.

It is messy work, which only increases our workload. It drags us further
downward, just when we are ready to ascend. Often we undertake it only
when something goes wrong ? the necessity of the endeavour propelled by
the advent of the failure.

At the onset of the Global Hawk crash, the investigation was set into
motion. It located the rudder-actuator as the faulty agent ? its excessive
flapping was identified as the cause of the plane?s demise. But where,
exactly, was the fault located? Perhaps it lay deep within the mechanics
of the actuator itself. No matter how stable and correct the command, the
component may have responded only partially, or not at all, to the
instruction?s demand.

Or perhaps it was located in the instructions themselves, or in their
transmission. It could have been located in the program through which
these instructions were compiled, or in the agency that programmed them.
Because the loosening of the rudder-actuator complex was not detected, the
fault could have been located in the performance of the sensor that
monitored the actuator?s output hub.

The output of each set of components at each scale of organization
provides units of assembly for the next level up. Data may be processed
correctly at one scale but incorrectly at another. Faulty measurements
alter the measurements required by controllers, and, depending on their
severity, may scale up to degrade the overall feedback loop. One
contingent fault may lead to another, cascading upward through the levels
of the system to affect its overall performance. The small-scale fault can
lead to the large-scale failure.

There are no hard-and-fast boundaries between fault and failure, but there
is a transition point. Failure comes when a fault cascades up to cross a
critical threshold. It is a matter not of eliminating fault, but of
developing a control system equipped with an adequate degree of

The drone?s components and systems take shape in degrees of coalescence
and disruption, at various frequencies, rhythms, magnitudes, and scales of
endeavour. They are subject to external forces, to the environmental
stress placed upon them. How much can a part take before it fails,
decouples from its job, spins out of synch? Forces of temperature, mass,
and vibration conspire against it. Discursive pressures, too. The drone
works as a platform because the agents that it helps to assemble, however
organic or inorganic, material or linguistic, together stabilize a
sufficient degree of operational commonality ? agreement that the thing
works. The agreement happens through a setting of the terms:  the
ascendance of the organizing principles, or programs, that allow sustained
affiliation to be achieved.

Perhaps now, having worked our way up from the greasy mechanics on the
lower decks, we can arrive at the top. We can clean up and assume our
rightful place at the helm, clicking through the drone?s images, its views
from above ? its control panels, the representational constructs through
which it sees, through which we see, and through which we seek to
understand its operations and politics. However, this is not so easy, for
in the analytical orientation that drone ontology demands, the cockpit is

If there is a dominant genre of image, it is perhaps the simulation. Its
interface is familiar to any aficionado of video games and high-tech
adventure films. Like the control panels of actual flight crews, it bears
the traces of the commercial game formats from which it is derived. Yet,
like the actual drones of which they are a component, the coherency and
discreteness of these interfaces dissolve upon scrutiny, scattering into
arrays of component actors that are shared by other affiliations. These
actors ? visual and rhythmic motifs, behavioural conventions, perspectival
formats, codes, tags, controllers, users, procedures, game architectures,
rules ? circulate and bond across multiple domains of experience,
traversing the divides between corporation and government, operation and
training. The particular applications in which they accumulate, developed
largely by the game industry and influenced by its formats of cognitive
and affective engagement, are made to excite the player and must be
adjusted in accordance with the velocities, magnitudes, and textures of
the real world.

The component actors of these gaming, control, and simulation ecologies
relate as discrete entities, yet they also modulate and constrain flows at
various scales of experience. They are relatively stabilized, consolidated
platforms but also dynamic systems defined by the environments that they
move through. As they configure and fluctuate, they require continuous
adjustments across the various scales, magnitudes, and rhythms at which
they are active. From which ontological ?side? does the agency of this
adjustment derive? The differentials, commonalities, and alignments that
are negotiated do not involve hard-and-fast separations. The action
courses through all of the actors in attendance, as these actors perform ?
performatively enact ? within the dynamics of the various situations that
arise, in various degrees of attunement to the shared priorities that are

Agency manifests by way of its action and maintenance: through the ways it
comes to perform, at various speeds and degrees of complexity, and the
extent to which this performance is recognized, valued, and maintained. An
actor endeavours to be an adequate player of the game. What is deemed
adequate performance, and how is it sustained?  Some aspects of practice,
prioritized, congeal into higher-order principles. Sufficiently
stabilized, they replicate, become redundant, and standardize, at various
scales, across various platforms of endeavour. They perpetuate their
standards such that other actors come to move in accordance with their

It is a matter of maintaining sufficient stability at numerous scales of
practice, to the extent that these shared formats, agreements, and
standards can come to exist: potential alliances that can offer
propagation and endurance over time.

As simulations often require nothing more than a joystick and portable
computer, the same high-end environments that are found in stationary
systems can be taken directly into the field. Some simulations are plugged
directly into actual ground control stations, allowing operators to toggle
between simulation and actuality, rehearsal and mission, within a
functional crew station. Game-based training becomes an essential
precursor to deployment, increasingly integrated into actual operations in
real time.

Ground control stations, training simulations, and video games occupy a
common cognitive and affective terrain: sites of data rendered actionable.
Together they constitute an interlocking complex, harnessing the
imaginary, that conditions orientation in the world. Along with the
infrastructure of the bases and training facilities within which they
unfold, the enacted routines of this complex play a large materializing
role: as affiliations of monitored and maintained states, they stabilize
and entrain the material agencies of crew members and flown drones.

Across these dynamic, entraining affiliations, functional organizations of
knowledge and skill are redistributed and reconstrained, along with
positions, categories, and divisions of labour. As agencies circulate and
bond across multiple domains of experience, traversing the divides between
combat and entertainment, research and commerce, unlikely bedfellows are
brought together through economic need. The redistribution of manpower ?
the shift from soldiers in battlefields and fighter planes to those in
high-tech ground control units and command centres ? challenges the
stances, positions, and qualifications that have defined previous
generations. The values and dispositions of unmanned warfare do not always
align with the gendered roles, imaginaries, and concepts of adequacy that
were present in the heroic ideals of the past. Displacement from the
mastering console of the cockpit, haven of modernist subjectivity, does
not come easy.

Nor do the incessant demands for new adequacies. As unmanned systems gain
the ability to record activities on the ground over much longer
timeframes, the vast amounts of data that they absorb can easily outrun
the capacities of personnel. Cameras and sensors become ever more
sophisticated, yet they are of limited value unless they can be
accompanied by improved human intelligence and skill. The task of
interpreting what the drone is seeing falls partly into the hands of the
flight crew, and video and sensor feeds are also sent to analysis and
dissemination sites at bases around the world. Inside their cavernous
rooms, analysts filter vast streams of data. They, too, are hard-pressed:
staring for hours on end at their monitors, nearly inert at their chairs,
they try to ferret out the single, telling deviance in the normalized
flow. Armed with the skill of extracting relevant data from image flows
and information arrays, they attempt to organize those data into patterns
from which extrapolations can be made.

The unmanned system, as an affiliation of components and practices, relies
on analysis and dissemination sites like these. They are vital platforms
of the drone in its shared perceptual and analytical capacities, its
sensing, processing, communicating, and actuating functions ? nodes
through which its data are streamed, formatted, tagged, and rendered
searchable across networks of datasets. As the image and sensor data are
organized and stored, they become the primary site through which
correlations can be made and inferences drawn. Databases, activated
through search algorithms, become the primary repository of knowledge.

The challenge is that of tracking vehicles, objects, and humans on the
ground with a higher degree of precision, in ways that lessen the demands
on human decision-making: to amplify the overall intelligence and skill of
the system. This often takes the form of enhancing the capacity of
tracking and search algorithms, along with the network processing
capability required to parse and coordinate the data. It involves
increasing the ability of drones to sense, reason, learn, and make
decisions, and to collaborate and communicate, with a minimized degree of
direct human involvement.

Such systems are often described as automated or autonomous. Yet the
unmanned system does not eliminate the human: it redistributes the
agencies of warfare. The capacities of sensing, analyzing, and alerting ?
the intelligence and skill required to interpret information and act on
the results ? are shared by an affiliation of actors, however algorithmic,
organic, or systemic. Their ontological statuses arise from their
performative practices within the functional organization of the system.

It is a matter of how they are maintained as dynamically stable entities ?
sustained, naturalized, and rendered discrete ? and the programs through
which this is accomplished. It is a matter of the priorities that come
into play: the patterns and flows that are deemed most appropriate to the
circumstances, as they are stabilized and maintained in practice.

As intelligence migrates into unlikely, shared sources, even those that
are spatial and atmospheric, and agency is understood to be distributed
and embodied in all manner of organic and inorganic actors, a sense of
skill emerges whose source is in negotiation rather than domination. Here,
an actor works with a material rather than against it, cultivating an
existing, emergent meaning rather than externally imposing one. Unforeseen
intimacies arise. It requires an agile practice attuned to the unexpected,
an excessive proximity to that which cannot be contained or possessed.
Analytical notions of power diminish, along with the control consoles that
provide their supports.

Below the decks the rudders swerve.


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