Liminal Airspace!
George Monteleone

It is a constant sound. A set of tones, a complex hum. An ambience, perhaps becoming part of what we perceive as the noise floor of our environment. Eventually, it might cease to be differentiable: the refrigerator, outside traffic, midnight sewer maintenance, urban helicopter rotors, cicadas.  It also works visually: a field of gray as the gestalt product of a random array of millions of bits of black and white, an undetectable signal.!

What did you see? A face or a word?!

it is a global component of spiritual and musical history: the om, Hundustani and Carnatic music, Japanese gagaku, the Australian didgeridoo, Scottish pibroch, La Monte Young, doom metal.  !

Sunn O)))!

It is a harmless apian familiar. Fatherless in origin, straight from the queen bee’s egg. Slow, he gathers no resources, a little sex machine, furry and without a stinger, to be softly petted with a gentle fingertip, a docile meme. !


It is a military killing machine, an international controversy. !

It has recently become an ubiquitous colloquial vehicle. A light spectacle at clubs and raves, a hovering, illuminated, anthropomorphized voyeur; it is noticed briefly, easily accepted, considered non-invasive and more fun than a concert photographer. !

Thursday Rave (pt.3 FT A Mini Drone)!

The satellite image has become a commonplace access tool, as is dropping down to a virtual street view, which provides limited virtual routes through terrestrial space. The aerial intermediate, in our current virtual landscape, is a liminal space between the familiar satellite map and the street view. An oft-blogged quote from Wikipedia is apt enough: Liminality is sacred, alluring, and dangerous. With personal, small-scale flight, there exists the prospect of access to liminal airspace, to explore and map it, in putative anonymity with minimal risk. The sky-dreaming earthbound no longer need flight simulators, planes, or licenses. We can explore and demystify the sacred and alluring while evading the danger, though in doing so, the space may not remain liminal for too long. Perhaps this is the nature of mapping frontiers. !!

There is also, of course, the push to commercialize, and Hollywood is a proponent and catalyst of civilian and commercial use, enjoying recent exemptions from the FAA.

Drones have recently found their way into scripts as well as onto film sets. In Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s aviation engineer protagonist (Matthew McConaughey) hijacks and salvages a former military UAV to supply his dying terrestrial farm, not long before being sent off to the dark corners of space and time to help save humanity. !

Amazon Prime Air!

Unmanned craft have played the hero for decades, having been sent on exploratory missions to areas humans do not yet have the means to control: millions of miles to planets and moons, beaming back data about uninhabitable, theretofore imaginary landscapes. Well, they have not been considered “drones” so much as “probes.” Though the latter is a bit of a disagreeable term, they have been given far more agreeable names: Messenger, Pathfinder, New Horizons, Pioneer, Venera, Voyager, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity.  Scientific machine vessels of positive affect, easy to root for as they struggle along through harsh territory, sending us marvelous images despite now-obsolete photographic technology, like images from some forgotten past. We have cheered them on as they have covered land distances equivalent to a moderate bicycle ride. !

Out Of This World Records! (NASA)!

They are adorably, tragically inept in the face of the most basic of terrestrial problems. Spirit, disabled for nearly a year after getting stuck in soft soil, was recommissioned as a stationary unit before succumbing to a harsh Martian winter. NASA abandoned contact attempts in 2011. If only it had been equipped with a quad-copter, or even a balloon.!

Rotorcraft as Mars Scouts!

As rare explorers of unknown territory, unmanned craft in space cannot yet overwhelm the liminal spaces they visit. This makes them endearing: persistent workers in the face of adversity, out in the terrible unknown, sampling specimens and computing data until they can sample and compute no more. This sensibility is not limited to the extraterrestrial: we can send them to the limits of nature, lava flows and polar ice caps, bursting and dripping with equal parts objective curiosity, spectacle, and romantic tragedy. !

Watch This Drone Fly Right Into An Erupting Volcano (Buzzfeed)!

As for government sanctioned commissions, they are less kindly branded in nomenclature: the notorious X-37, surrounded by internet speculation on its surreptitious role in systems of control: space-to-space surveillance, an eye on China’s space station, jamming satellite signals, and so on—a more sinister turn on the notion of Curiosity. As things comes back down to earth, the names become considerably less cute: RQ-7 Shadow, RQ-12 Wasp, MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper, RQ-4 Global Hawk, RQ-3 Dark Star, RQ-14 Dragon Eye, RQ-11 Raven, MQ-1C Warrior, MQ-8B Fire Scout.

For vehicles whose operations are shrouded in classification, the names seem to make the intention clear enough. So, the aura of liminality remains after all, but with menace. !

Without a clear context, liminal intrigue can just as well give way to practical anxiety, from cloaked U.S. military operations to our neighbors’ hobbies. Images crop up on social media, through the focus-softened mesh of a window screen:!

Man test-flying a drone outside the apartment #ohno #bushwick #bushwhack (mdubs888)!

A flying lens. A ghost in the noise, as in the film Poltergeist, the titular “noisy ghost” of German folklore historically revised for a media future, emerging from random video signals. What is it about ghosts? Perhaps the otherworldly ability to move uninhibited, to occupy all corners of space and time. Invisibility. The sense of lurking, the fear that we might turn around to suddenly find it, on the other side of the window, at the foot of the bed, seemingly undeniable but gone without evidence with a blink and a whisper, blending with the surroundings, difficult to detect, a quality shared by birds, aquatic life, and military aircraft. !


Should one find a drone loitering around the apartment window, it would seem perfectly reasonable to haul it in for questioning. !

Get This: Drones that Attack And Take Over Other Drones!

Find out it if it is up to something, or if is just carrying an innocent payload of Pamperstm. Pull its data and have a look, or if that is not possible, swallow hard while wondering if it was streaming. !

!         What does this call for? Are drone detectors, hijackers, and jammers our latter- day tin foil hats?  Or is this only reasonable? The West does experience the horrific physical potential of this technology firsthand; the pressing issue here tends more towards privacy. Does this portend an aesthetic, social, and political future in yet another liminal space mediating utopianism and paranoia?  We can consider how best to respond: in dialogue, in protest, in poetic appropriation, in attempts at redefinition, in nihilistic exhibitionism, in a defiance of the surreptitious, in a process of ever bolstering awareness. It is time to consider the Spirit and Opportunity of this technology, to counteract the objectives of the Shadow and Reaper, and to establish an imperative to send these drones where they belong: if not in full view, to be accepted or rejected by a knowing public, then at the very least, to the ends of nature, poetry, and critique. !