Consumer drones are entering everyday spaces with increasing frequency and impact as more and more hobbyists use the aerial tool for recreational photography and videography. In this article, I seek to expand the common reference to drones as “unmanned aircraft systems” by conceptualising the hobby drone practice more broadly as a heterogeneous, mobile assemblage of virtual and physical practices and human and non-human actors. Drawing on initial ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with drone hobbyists as well as ongoing cyber-ethnographic research on social networking sites, this article gives an overview of how the mobile drone practice needs to be situated alongside people, things, and data in physical and virtual spheres. As drone hobbyists set out to fly their devices at a given time and place, a number of relations reaching across atmospheric (e. g. weather conditions, daylight hours, GPS availability), geographic (e. g. volumetric obstacles), mobile (e. g. flight restrictions, ground traffic), and social (e. g. bystanders) dimensions demand attention. Furthermore, when drone operators share their aerial images online, visual (e. g. live stream) and cyber-social relations (e. g. comments, scrutiny) come into play, which may similarly impact the drone practice in terms of the pilot’s performance. While drone hobbysists appear to be interested in keeping a “low profile” in the physical space, many pilots manage a comparatively “high profile” in the virtual sphere with respect to the sharing of their images. Since the recreational trend brings together elements of convergence, location-awareness, and real-time feedback, I suggest approaching consumer drones as, what Scott McQuire (2016) terms, “geomedia.” Moreover, consumer drones open up different “cybermobilities” (Adey/Bevan 2006) understood as connected movement that flows through and shapes both physical and virtual spaces simultaneously. The way that many drone hobbyists appear to navigate these different environments, sometimes at the same time, has methodological implications for ethnographic research on consumer drones. Ultimately, the assemblage-perspective brings together aviation-related and socio-cultural concerns relevant in the context of consumer drones as digital communication technology and visual production tool.
© 2018 by transcript Verlag