Soldiers march through the streets. The town square a dozen blocks away is full of young, idealistic protesters. Whispers of revolution begin to glide through social media websites. From the anonymous refuge of cyberspace, people call for earthly liberation. But then, inexplicable gunfire punctuates the pregnant night air. Something violent is happening, and internet access has been blacked out across the city.
Crackdowns on protest movements in the Middle East over the past two years, like the one in Egypt this winter, belie authoritarian regimes’ fear of social networks and the free flow of information. Large scale internet shutdowns somewhat effectively neutered the crowd-sourced angst of protestors, especially those depending on wireless communications and cell phones to mobilize and advocate. Seeing this increasingly popular trend, Liam Young of big ideas think tank Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today came up with a futuristic way to put the data stream back in the hands of the dissidents.
“Part nomadic infrastructure and part robotic swarm,” Young developed hatbox-sized, remotely-piloted aircraft that can hover above a crowd like a dragonfly and also serve as an ad hoc electronic network. In something of an ironic twist, Young’s “Electronic Countermeasures” use implements of Big Brother-esque citizen surveillance. Says Young: “We have built a flock GPS-enabled quadcopter drones from components that were originally intended for aerial reconnaissance and police surveillance.”
In his introduction to the project, he continues his description of the drones’ potential uses:
The public can upload files, photos and share data with one another as the drones float above the significant public spaces of the city. The swarm becomes a pirate broadcast network, a mobile infrastructure that passers-by can interact with. It is a site specific file sharing hub, a temporary, emergent online community where content and information is exchanged across the drone network. When on location, a visitor can log onto the drone network with their phones and laptops. When the audience interacts with the drones they glow with vibrant colours, they break formation, they are called over and their flight pattern becomes more dramatic and expressive. Impromptu augmented communities form around the glowing flock. Their aerial dance and dynamic glowing formations give visual expression to the digital communities of the city.
The techno-futuristic vision of Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today may allow the highbrow conceptual design of the swarm–with its “dynamic glowing formations” and “dramatic and expressive” flight pattern–to get in the way of functionality. In a life-and-death protest situation, I know I’d want my mobile internet infrastructure to blend in with the surroundings and stay in one place.
Of course, there’s just as much chance that Young’s technology will be more beneficial to those who fear neither guns nor gallows. My guess for the first place you’ll see one of these little multi-purpose digi-copters: a Flaming Lips concert.
Source: Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today