Drones in Visual Culture: Developing a New Theory of Visual Mobile Communication

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Sociological Studies


This Fellowship aims to understand whether and how the use of drone technology in society is changing the way people see the world and visual culture more broadly, and to extend and innovate current theoretical approaches to visual mobile communication. It is underpinned by exploring i) the aesthetic characteristics of drone visuals, ii) how drone visuals circulate and iii) public perception of drone visuals.

Drones are widely understood as unstaffed aircrafts, generally fitted with cameras that can be remotely controlled and used for recreational and commercial purposes. As flying robots, drones can capture images that would be difficult to take with ordinary cameras, providing a wealth of new visual information that would be otherwise unavailable. Aerial photography/videography is not a new phenomenon. What is new and different is that increasingly drones are used not only by drone operators with valid CAA permission, but also by amateurs, noticeably expanding the potential to capture, share and store new visual content.

Research into drones to date has focused on technical aspects and the implications of their use in warzones. There has also been a small amount of research into the issues they raise in terms of surveillance, privacy and ethics, but surprisingly the significance of drones for visual culture has not been addressed. Therefore, I plan to use this Fellowship to address the overarching research question:
- In what ways are drones contributing to or changing contemporary visual cultures?

I will also address the subsidiary research questions:
1.What are the aesthetic, textual, semiotic characteristics of drone visuals?
2.How do drone visuals live? Where are they seen and shared? How widely? By whom? With what implications?
3.What do the general public think about drone visuals? How do they perceive them?
4.What is the impact of drone visuals on culture more widely? What are the main issues they raise?

Through these questions, I will add a digital arts and humanities perspective to the current understanding of drones, and will showcase how such a perspective can move academic research on drones beyond existing analyses of technicalities and safety considerations. For this purpose, this Fellowship will adopt a 'visual culture' approach that pays attention to the visual object and the active experience of the individual in the optical experience. This will be combined with a 'technological mediation' approach that acknowledges the importance of thinking of visuals in the digital age in direct conversation with media and new technologies. In this way, the Fellowship will bring visual communication and culture studies into conversation with other fields, especially internet, digital and mobile media studies.

Methodologically, this Fellowship will employ a mixed methods approach that is novel in its integration of three strands. First, online participant observation will be conducted on drone users and how their visuals circulate online. Second, a survey will be conducted within a public exhibition to collect public perceptions of drone visuals. Third, qualitative content analysis on drone visuals will be conducted to explore their aesthetic characteristics and meanings.

Throughout this Fellowship, I will initiate interdisciplinary dialogue about the importance of drone visuals as an object of investigation in visual culture through the publication of a solo-authored monograph, by holding an interdisciplinary international conference, and publishing one peer-reviewed journal article and a special issue. This research will achieve impact through a workshop with drone users, a drone visuals exhibition and online group discussions.

This project builds on the insights and experience of a British Academy funded pilot project (Small Grant Ref SRG18R1\180618) where I explored users' and developers' perspectives on drone usage.

Planned Impact

1.Who will benefit from this research?
This research will benefit a) members of the public interested in visual culture and b) drone amateur users.

2.How will they benefit from this research?
This Fellowship will influence the way the public perceive drone visuals. Also, it will inform amateur users about what people think of drone usage and the visuals they produce. In order to maximise opportunities for impact, I will run a drone visuals exhibition, a workshop and online group discussions with drone enthusiasts.

-I will organise a drone visuals exhibition with a series of discussions in a public venue in Sheffield city centre. This initiative will serve to both collect data from the public and to achieve impact. The discussions will provide information about the research project, drone technology, and it will explain the purpose of the exhibition. In addition, the exhibition will provide visual examples. People from the public are very likely to experience drone visual content on a daily basis (such as news reports, documentaries, and YouTube videos) and this exhibition will be informative in promoting knowledge of this growing technological phenomenon and its creative potential. This exhibition aims to raise awareness about this new technological development and its potential.

-A workshop will be organised with a visual artist for drone users. The aims of the workshop will be to i) discuss views and thoughts that the public has on drone visuals and drone usage (built on the data collected during the drone visuals exhibition), and ii) to provide additional knowledge and expertise to stimulate amateurs' creative thinking (through visual examples and group activities). These activities may impact on the way drone users progress their creative work.

-Online group discussions about developments in drone technology, including their potential with respect to visual material and their impact in our visual cultures. These discussions will take place with drone amateur fliers on the most used drone platforms, which include online communities, forums and clubs. Through these discussions impact will be achieved raising awareness about the visual potential as well as challenges of using drone technologies.

From the outset, I will share my research and open up discussion with interested members of the public through social media presence, which will allow me to reach a wide audience.

-Two blogposts will be submitted to The Conversation, LSE Impact blog, Medium.com or similar in which the visual potential and challenges of using drones will be discussed. These websites will serve to promote activities and findings beyond the research community. Sharing this research through blogposts will help to achieve impact, allowing me to reach international audiences.


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