The Sky’s the Limit

Why we cheer when birds attack drones.

Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images.
A red-tailed hawk flies in Palm Harbor, Florida.

Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images.

YouTube’s destiny as a virtual menagerie was foreshadowed early on by co-founder Jawed Karim. He was responsible for the site’s first clip: a video of himself in front of the elephant enclosure at the San Diego Zoo. Not long after, according to a New Yorker account of the company’s early days, co-founder Steven Chen uploaded a few clips of his cat, Stinky. Since then, this digital faucet of moon-walking ponies and guilty puppies has sent forth a deluge. At this rate, as Dominic Pettman, professor of culture and media at the New School, New York put it, “YouTube is likely to end up as the world’s largest nature preserve.”

We already have enough videos of cats being jerks to definitely prove America’s obsession with household pets. But the growing amateur use of drones, combined with increasingly cheap, lightweight cameras such as GoPros and their clones, has allowed humans to blunder into airborne territory that had been more or less restricted to professional wildlife photographers. Every man with a drone is an accidental David Attenborough—with discomforting results.

Of the many, often beautiful videos of animals shot by drones on YouTube, there’s an intriguing new sub-set. Call it “bird vs. drone.” Unlike majestic drone-shots of Serengeti wildlife, these are shaky backyard clips, occasionally set to something like Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Often the drone is attacked by a flock of birds, seemingly out of nowhere. But other times, the drone owner seems to deliberately seek the encounter by, say, having his quadcopter fly and inspect an osprey’s treetop nest. That the birds attack is hardly surprising. “Drones don’t communicate much to animals that is relevant or useful to them, but they do communicate other things—threat and invasion of privacy,” Clara Mancini, founder of the Animal-Computer Interaction Laboratory at the Open University, told me. “We are bringing aliens into their world.”

Naturally, the clips where the animal manages to nearly down the drone have the most views—it’s a thrill to see footage of a hawk try and rip a chunk off the front of a RC plane from behind the safety of a computer screen. And the footage is titillating in the manner of a video game, shot from the point of view of an invading army under fire. Just take a look at the hawkish captions the creators give their videos: “Terretorial [sic] rumble shot about Bird fighting against RC Plane” and “RMIT UAS Research team dogfights with the king of the skies, where nature exhibits aerial supremacy over drones!

These amateur documentarians, like most of us, only rarely come into contact with real wildlife. For that reason alone, the closeness and interactivity of these images is compelling and adds to their virality. Pettman pointed out that British art critic John Berger, in his work About Looking, suggested that as animals are removed from our urban lives, the more we crave their image. That’s the irony of our bottomless appetite for sneezing panda videos, not to mention the highly anthropomorphic nature of our entertainment, from Narnia to Ratatouille. As Berger wrote,

In the windows of bookshops at Christmas, a third of the volumes on display are animal picture books. Baby owls or giraffes, the camera fixes them in a domain which, although entirely visible to the camera, will never be entered by the spectator. All animals appear like fish seen through the plate glass of an aquarium. The reasons for this are both technical and ideological: Technically the devices used to obtain ever more arresting images–hidden camera, telescopic lenses, flashlights, remote controls and so on–combine to produce pictures which carry with them numerous indications of their normal invisibility.

Now we can add to this shared cultural fixation our mania for posting amateur YouTube clips of bird-drone encounters, combined with the platform’s familiar tropes of exclamation point-ridden commentary and emotive sound tracks. It’s a technology-mediated safari with a simple point and click.

Although we experience the encounter from the drone’s point of view, a quick survey of the comment section shows that many of us seem to be sympathizing with the animal: “A few million years of evolution vs a few thousand hours of R&D…. nature:1; Tech:0 lol :)” or “Go Nature! Take down the drones!” But this doesn’t seem to prove any comprehensive pro-environment sentiment as much as anti-drone rhetoric. Peter Asaro, an assistant professor at the New School who researches drones, suggested that when nature rears up in this way, we feel a satisfying pushback against our own technological hubris. This sentiment is particularly tied to the video comments, because for many, drones are a physical manifestation of surveillance. As one commenter put it, “Goose: Protecting our rights to privacy one droid at a time. :D.”

“We make this video viral because we’re projecting our fear of surveillance or the idea that these robotic systems are unnatural or creepy,” Asaro added. “That nature also feels that way is kind of reassuring.” Plus, who doesn’t like a story where arrogant humans get their Icarus-esque comeuppance? Try not to feel smug when a goose attacks a drone filming golf-playing dudes.

Perhaps the birds also gain our sympathy because they have a vaguely humanoid face (the eyes and what we think we perceive of their expressions) more like our own than any blank flying machine currently on the market. It’s conceivable that if drones were to become convincingly bird-like (already we have the Robo Raven, drones that walk like birds, and drones that fly in a flock formation), our loyalties might shift. After all, the film Wall-E proved that we can love a robot with googly eyes—surely we can one day love a drone. Especially one that’s designed to visually echo our cultural affinity for birds and flight.

And as drone technology improves, we may no longer really be in charge of the situation. Our cameras and YouTube may no longer mediate the experience. “Drones are the next species. The more sophisticated their feedback loop, the more like animals they’ll act … they’ll be able to avoid hawks or communicate with them,” Pettman told me. “How long can we sustain this distinction?”

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.