Animals, Drones, and the Police

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We love when animals destroy drones. The compilation videos and their buzzf’diggification on Facebook has drawn together a very clear contemporary fascination with watching animals of all kinds destroy the most annoying objects of modern life. Animals fighting with flying machines is the new “watch a dad get kicked in the crotch on Christmas Day” in entertainment media.

The most recent story to draw attention around this phenomenon is the Dutch effort to train raptors (the birds not the dinosaurs) to snatch drones out of the sky. It’s worth clicking on the article to watch the short video because it is fascinating.

There’s nothing super complicated about the effort proper. A private, bird-based security firm has been contracted by the Dutch government to make those birds attack the drones that are threatening the privacy of, well, private citizens.

What I find interesting about the logic of the entire operation is the set of assumptions that exist to inform it. While the Guardian article I linked above is light on details from the security firm proper, the additional expert opinion from Geoff LeBaron really informs the majority of the piece:

Often drones lose their flying privileges because local birds feel crowded. “The drones are pretty much the size of a bird of prey, so smaller birds on the ground aren’t likely to mob a bird of prey when it’s flying – but larger birds are, especially when it’s around their nests,” said LeBaron, who’d seen the behavior in barnacle geese as well as raptors like ospreys. “The birds of prey are having an aggressive interaction to defend their territory from another bird of prey.”

LeBaron’s explanation naturalizes the antagonism between the bird and the ‘bot, and at first pass we could see an argument coming from this that would reaffirm some nature vs culture arguments right out of the Enlightenment and its echoes.

However, I think what’s more interesting is that there’s some strange flattening going on around the motivations of the bird in relationship to the drone. The animal psychology reading of the situation holds that the bird perceives a flattened relationship with the drone–when it looks at the drone, it sees a threat on par with other similar-sized flying things and deals with it appropriately.

There’s clearly a set of aviary disciplinary training that is going on here that’s similar to the training of a police officer or a private military corporation member. After all, the group doing this is a security firm. This bird isn’t just acting on instinct, but rather it is acting on training in the same way that a police dog or an assistance dog would be. When a dog helps someone who is visually impaired cross the street, we don’t essentialize that act into the “nature” of the dog. We recognize training.

There’s a politics to flattening out the bird’s relationship to the drone. We’re able to cast private operation of drones as literally “unnatural” and threatening to the order of things. More importantly, we are able to perform an action on humans by naturalizing the surveillance state as part of the instinctually-correct world of instincts available to animals.

Additionally, and this is some of the most interesting stuff for me, we are able to treat both the bird and the drone as equivalent creatures whose combat is an arena for working out what should exist in the world. It’s the choice between being a goddess or a cyborg abstracted out into violence between two inhuman things that we have objectified into combatants for our pleasure. What’s telling is that we can replace the bird with any other animal here–we can find an expert to naturalize the antagonism between the cat and the drone or the crocodile and the drone without any friction.

To end, I think that Greg Borenstein’s “Animal Tech Cop” does a great job of making this argument in a much more concise and entertaining way, so go look at that.

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