New 'Foucaultdian Boomerangs': Drones and urban surveillance

Research output: Contribution to conference without publisher/journalPaper without publisher/journalResearchpeer-review


Contemporary drone technology (here defined as unmanned and remote controlled flying devices capable of transmitting long-distance surveillance information as well as carrying weapons) raises international debate about ethical issues related to ’kills at a distance’ policies carried out by US forces in Afghanistan. Other zones of warfare and militarized conflicts are also contributing to the increasing awareness of the surveillance potential of contemporary drone technology. Drones, however, are also utilized for more peaceful purposes such as crops surveillance within farming and environmental surveillance of remote areas. In this paper I will set the agenda for doing two things. One is to explore the potential and scenarios related to the utilization of drone technologies in urban space surveillance (ITS/traffic control, crime prevention etc.). Like GPS that was developed for warfare, drones might become tools in the urban planners ‘toolbox’ in the future (already urban planners are utilizing these technologies to measure and survey large urban agglomerations). The point of departure being that these technologies might be ‘tested’ in warzones but only to be ‘imported back’ to urban centres of mass agglomeration in a trajectory somewhat similar to the ‘boomerang effect’ noticed by French philosopher Michel Foucault. In the book ‘Cities under Siege - The Militarization of Urban Space’ urban theorist Steven Graham (Verso, 2010) reminds us that Foucault spoke of the ‘testing’ of warfare technologies in remote warzones followed by a ‘return’ of the technologies to (predominantly imperial Western) cities and societies. I want to explore the hypothesis that drone technologies are being re-installed as surveillance technologies in ‘peaceful’ societies and thus that they may become ‘naturalized’ as yet another layer of real-time information being produced in the contemporary city (next to the massive amount of location-aware information created by smart phones and the like). I want to explore the discussion related to cities and urban spaces since more that 50% of the world’s populations now are living within these huge human-made artefacts called ‘cities’. Therefore one may assume that the interest (commercial as well as governmental) for utilizing these new technologies for crowd surveillance and general population control will be increasing. Two decades ago urban scholar Mike Davies claimed in his book ‘City of Quartz’ (Vintage Books, 1990) that the Los Angeles Police Department had become a ‘space police’ by means of their utilization of helicopters for urban surveillance. There is a striking parallel here; the helicopters of the LAPD ‘space police’ was a ‘return of the chopper’ from the warzones of Vietnam to US urban centres (another example is the militarization of urban cars in which the solid and almost ‘tank-like’ qualities are being imitated with the contemporary urban SUV and with the ‘Hummer’ as the example par excellence, Graham, 2010:302ff). Likewise I raise the question of drones as potential ‘boomerang technologies’ for urban surveillance. Along this exploration I touch upon issues such as: Are drones the future urban information and surveillance infrastructure? Will drones patrol cities and urban neighbourhoods in the future? How will this be controlled and regulated and what will such mobile surveillance mean to urban life? Will mobile drone surveillance be confined to state agencies or will private businesses and citizen also become able to apply these technologies? These are some of the issues related to empirical dimension of the paper. The second dimension of the paper relates to the issue of what might be the adequate theoretical framing for understanding this new development. Here I argue that the field of surveillance studies as for example Wall and Monahan (2011) who identifies a ‘politics of drones’ or Neocleous’ analysis of ‘air power as police power’ (2013) in most profitable ways may meet and exchange with the ‘mobilities turn’ theories. Within the last decade the social sciences has taken a ‘mobile turn’ and much theoretical work has been done to frame what material and digital mobility mean for culture, interaction, and urban life (Cresswell, 2006; Jensen, 2013; Urry, 2000, 2007, 2014). The framing of these technologies will touch upon modern warfare and ‘air power’ (Kaplan, 2006), militarization of urban space (Graham, 2010), ‘dark sides’ of mobilities (Jensen, 2013) as well as point towards a discussion about drone technologies as ‘mobilites design’ for the contemporary network city (Jensen, 2014) and drones as yet another potential ‘tool’ in the ICT toolbox of urban planners and designers (Jensen in press). En route to this discussion I will explore the idea that urban surveillance drones may be comprehended as a new dimension of ‘mobilities design’ (Jensen, 2014). By marrying surveillance studies and mobilities theories I explore the potential of such new framing to increase our understanding of drone technologies in future urban societies.
The paper is structured in six sections. After the introduction in section one, I move to section two where we present a (very) short history of urban surveillance contextualizing the drone surveillance technologies into the wider historical perspective moving from ancient street policing to contemporary urban high-tech surveillance systems. Section three goes into more detail as to what the drone technologies de facto are capable of. I shortly scan the utilitarian dimension of contemporary drone technologies by looking at what they can do in warzones as well as in peaceful environments. Section four then lift the gaze towards the theoretical framing presenting state-of-the art positions within the field of surveillance studies. This is followed by section five where I shortly present the mobilities turn and its potential relevance to the study of urban drone technologies. This theoretical framing is then followed by the sixth and final section of the paper where I embark on the discussion and reflection about the future use of drones in urban spaces. The nature of this section will point more to issues of further need for research and potential scenarios for future urban surveillance than any firm reporting of research findings. The paper thus aim for two goals; firstly to identify urban drone technologies a new and empirically important field of research. Secondly, to present the very first ideas of a theoretical frame based on surveillance studies and mobilities research, thus creating a platform for exploring ‘new Foucaultdian Boomerangs’ and the future of drones in urban surveillance.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date6 Nov 2014
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - 6 Nov 2014
EventNetworked Urban Mobilities: How new technologies change cities, cultures and economies - Aalborg University Campus in Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
Duration: 5 Nov 20147 Nov 2014
Conference number: 10


ConferenceNetworked Urban Mobilities
Location Aalborg University Campus in Copenhagen
Internet address


  • Mobilties
  • Drones
  • Surveillance
  • Urban Design

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'New 'Foucaultdian Boomerangs': Drones and urban surveillance'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this