image: Cities as Bacterial Blooms © 2016 Karl Kullmann
Accessible imaging technology in the field of environmental design has wielded considerable agency in the evolution of architectural, landscape, and urban discourse. Evolving from the 1920s, when the proliferation of the airplane and the drafting machine respectively inspired and facilitated the modern architectural project onto the 1970s and 1980s when the ubiquitous photocopier was a key technology enabling the sampling, scaling, and compositing that permeated the development of postmodern theory. Recent imaging technology has led to the ultimate in the establishment and influence of landscape urbanism by integrating map based technology from widely accessible satellite imagery and spatial data.
The newest imaging technology has shifted the view nearer to the ground in the form of drones. While drones have been available to consumers since 2009, their current evolution includes two features that are potentially significant to design discourse and urban culture in general. The first is automated navigation, which includes both the ability to predefine virtual flight paths and the capacity to autonomously track the ground-dwelling “pilot” from the air. Automated navigation also enables the second feature, where topographic landmarks (including buildings and landscapes) are optically recorded in overlapping detail and converted into georeferenced three-dimensional maps.
The likely widespread adoption of this technology raises interesting questions for architecture, landscape, and urbanism. What are the implications when the duality of the horizontal eye-level view and the satellite’s gaze is dissolved? How will this low-aerial vantage point impact imaging and cognitive mapping of urban environments that, since the eighteenth century, have primarily been presented planimetrically? How will the third person view alter how urban actors conceive of their own sense-of-place in the city? And what new techniques for representing and imaging the city will the drone’s perspective initiate or induce?
In framing these questions, a new essay by Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning Karl Kullmann anticipates the transformative agency of the drone’s-eye view in design discourse. Titled “The Satellites’ Progeny: Digital Choreography in the Age of Drone Vision” and published in February in Forty-Five: A Journal of Outside Research, the paper premises the potential of drones in design via three characteristics that Kullmann believes distinguish drone-based imaging from satellite-derived imaging and mapping:
- Interstitial detail: Although the clarity of satellite imagery continually improves, the sheer distance and the largely orthogonal perspective limits its perspective. The drone’s eye is capable of extreme proximity and accessing the underneath and in-between spaces that remain hidden from orbit 450 miles above the earth.
- Near real-time control: The rapid speed of the low earth orbits required for detailed imaging limit satellite imagery capture to small preset windows. Web based satellite imagery is also automatically filtered to privilege aesthetically palatable imagery over less pastoral imagery that may nevertheless reveal more important information about a particular site in contrast, although their navigation systems remain tethered to geostationary satellites, drones enable direct spatial and temporal control over imaging.
- Content creation: Designers engaged in mapping generally operate as miners, samplers and filterers of satellite, aerial, and spatial data provided by agencies and corporations. Drones facilitate direct—and usually on site—user engagement in the creation of optical and photogrammetric content.
Professor Kullmann argues that the drone’s eye view extends personal horizons to situate people in the near landscape. Correlating this situated nearness within the vaster urban structure impels new and old forms of mapping, which, he argues, takes the form of re-potentialized digital choregraphy.
Learn more about Professor Kullmann's essay here.