By Emily Schlickman, Luke Hegeman, Brett Milligan, & Chris Sherwin
Edited by Brian Sholis
Drones, like many other technological advancements—including the internet, GPS, radar, and digital cameras—can be traced back to the military. For nearly two centuries, drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), were primarily limited to keeping soldiers out of harm, whether through reconnaissance or predatory exercises.
The first recorded use of a UAV was arguably in the summer of 1849, when Austrians attacked the Republic of San Marco in Venice with the help of unpiloted balloons. According to the Morning Chronicle, the balloons, outfitted with shrapnel, had exactly twenty-three minutes to drift 6.5 kilometers to the city center from a war steamer out in the lagoon. At minute twenty-three, each balloon exploded, maiming and sometimes killing those below. (1) Flash forward to October 2001, less than one month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Predator drone, initially developed for reconnaissance and data gathering, had been hurriedly weaponized with Hellfire missiles. Though largely untested, US forces flew it to the center of Afghanistan with the intention of killing Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Once he had been identified, the Predator was cleared to fire. The Air Force pilots, sitting over ten thousand kilometers away in the CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, pulled the trigger. And missed. Omar escaped and was never caught. (2)
These two aerial vehicles—the shrapnel-filled balloon and the missile-clad Predator—bookend the first era of UAVs, defined almost exclusively by battlefield usage. In the mid-2000s, the rapid expansion of smartphones, which could control UAVs, brought about the “drone-as-toy” era. Their increasing popularity encouraged companies to make them significantly cheaper, lighter, and easier to fly (or, more accurately, harder to crash). Today, drones are in the midst of another transition, one predicted on branding as much as new technology. (3) A quick social media search of #dronesforgood reveals them as “flying helpers” being used for a range of constructive activities: autonomously mapping hazardous underground mines, assessing agricultural areas that have a high risk for flooding, monitoring anti-poaching efforts. While it is true that UAVs are increasingly being used as important tools across a range of industries, and that the barriers to entry for UAVs have lowered, the technology remains far from democratic. There is still power in the aerial perspective. And that power belongs to a select few.
What does the future hold for drones? Will they shed their early reputation, gain the trust of the general public, and invite new participants to the sky? Will they truly serve everyone? Three stories in which UAVs have been used to monitor or analyze human impacts on the landscape suggest an intermediate step: the evolution of drones as “flying helpers.”
One example comes from the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge (ADNWR), located along the San Joaquin River in the California Delta. It occupies part of a shoreline formerly covered in a Pleistocene dune complex that was several kilometres in length and rose up to thirty-four metres above the river. These dunes were mined away over the past century, mainly to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. The refuge was established to recreate habitats for endangered butterflies and plants unique to this sandy landscape. (4) But ADNWR managers face two significant design challenges in this effort: a lack of actual sand on site and a plethora of introduced plant species that tend to strangle what little is left of the dunes, thus making them unfit for the desired species. (5)
Beginning in 2013, sand dredged from the Stockton Shipping Channel was used to reconstruct dune formations. Shortly thereafter, Brett Milligan, a professor of landscape architecture at University of California, Davis (UC Davis), began surveying these operations with UAVs. With no plan or strategy for how the imported sand would be shaped on site; no way to confidently predict how different plant species would colonize the imported material; and the unmanageable effects of wind, Milligan decided to use the UAVs to track developments at the site.
To detect topographic and vegetative changes, Milligan used a combination of high-resolution UAV imagery, photogrammetry software, and real-time kinematic surveying equipment (RTK). RTK allows one to geo-reference selected points in a landscape to within one or two centimeters of accuracy. Milligan set out orange bucket lids, flew UAVs over the site, and then located the bright orange discs and attributed to them the appropriate coordinates. When a photogrammetry model is run with this data, it produces a three-dimensional geo-referenced terrain that can be exported into a 3D modeling program for spatial and volumetric analysis Using these methods, Milligan could use sequential three-dimensional surveys to compare plant succession, large changes in landform, and even the subtler movement of sand particles across the terrain due to wind.
The patterns revealed by these repeated surveys informed design studios in the UC Davis landscape architecture program, which resulted in design schemes for the intentional sculpting and integrative management of the dunes. Those schemes informed ADNWR’s forthcoming management plan.
A second case study centers on using UAVs to evaluate the social performance of open space. Hunter’s Point South, a 4.5-hectare waterfront park located along the East River in Long Island City, New York, was designed by Thomas Balsley Associates (now SWA/Balsley) and Weiss/Manfredi with Arup Group as a primary consultant. Prior to redevelopment, the site was an abandoned industrial area built on top of historical wetlands. (6) In 2013, the first phase of the park opened to the public with a playground, basketball courts, a dog run, a multi-purpose field, and a waterfront esplanade with views to Manhattan, among other features.
XL, the research and innovation lab at SWA, collaborated with researchers at Pennsylvania State University to identify environmental, social, and economic benefits the park offered visitors and conducted additional research and writing. The team collected several kinds of post-occupancy data, including aerial footage—still images, fly-through video, and hovering video—to help provide a “social snapshot” of the site and reveal patterns not visible from the ground. Was the park encouraging public health and wellbeing, alternative transportation, and recreational and social activity? For the still images, a UAV was flown to the same coordinates every thirty minutes to better understand how people used the main lawn area. The fly-through footage allowed the researchers to track user activity across the entire site at the same time. The hovering videos captured localized pedestrian movement across the park. The lab worked with a data scientist to apply an experimental machine-learning algorithm to the footage to produce a heat map reflecting occupation density. The results of this project were published as part of the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Landscape Performance series.
A final case study involves UAVs in tandem with miniaturized sensors charting the environmental condition of human-impacted sites. Versions of these sensors have been around since the turn of the century and now have a name: IoT, or the Internet of Things. (7) The sensors soak up information about their surroundings and transfer that data through the drone.
Building on this idea, Luke Hegeman, founder of MODUS Collective and formerly a designer at Fletcher Studio, is developing a system for aggregating and visualizing on-site data to better understand the environmental conditions of South Park, a small project located in the SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco. Designed by Fletcher Studio and completed in 2017, the park was originally built as a picturesque garden in the mid-1800s but now hosts a play area, stormwater infrastructure, sculpted gardens, and gathering spaces connected by a curving pathway.
With the system, sensors embedded throughout South Park could measure variables related to the environment of the site and store that information in a database that can then be relayed to a UAV flying above. The system could measure moisture, salinity, and pH levels as well as concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium in the soil, all of which helps assess environmental conditions such as the health of the park’s trees. The final system is scheduled to be released by 2020.
Whether charting restoration progress, monitoring park use, or aggregating environmental metrics, UAVs have helped generate an extensive bank of aerial information about human-impacted landscapes. These are remarkable technical achievements that help people to better understand landscapes in transition. Yet much of the resulting data remains buried within each project. For drone usage to truly enter another era—a democratic era—the power of this aerial perspective must be transferred beyond soldiers, hobbyists, humanitarians, and niche professionals. To follow in the footsteps of other military technologies and become an everyday tool that touches many lives, we must continue inventing novel and constructive uses for UAVs with a critical eye. By equipping people with a new perspective and new data, they may better understand, monitor, and affect changes in their own built environments. Maybe then we can think of drones as helpful civic tools.
The authors would like to thank: Tom Balsley and Brian Staresnick from SWA/Balsley, Bill Tathum from SWA, Anya Domlesky from the XL Research and Innovation Lab at SWA, and Lisa Du Russel and Aastha Singh from the Penn State University Stuckman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture for their support during the research and writing of this article.
(1) Morning Chronicle, August 29, 1849, 5, accessed January 20, 2019 https://airminded.org/2009/08/22/the-first-air-bomb-venice-15-july-1849/#identifier_0_2398
(2) Chris Woods, “The Story of America’s Very First Drone Strike,” The Atlantic, May 30, 2015, accessed January 20, 2019 https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/05/america-first-drone-strike-afghanistan/394463/
(3) See IDEO’s Drones for Good project for examples of “flying helpers.”
(4) Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan, 2002, https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/antiochchap1to8.pdf
(5) Ibid; Interview with Louis Terrazas, Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge Manager, US Fish and Wildlife, 2014
(6) Katie Gerfen, “2013 Annual Design Review: Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park,” Architect Magazine, December 17, 2013, accessed December 20, 2018 https://www.architectmagazine.com/awards/annual-design-review/hunters-point-south-waterfront-park_o
(7) Arik Gabbai, “Kevin Ashton Describes the Internet of Things,” Smithsonian Magazine, January 25, 2015, accessed December 24, 2018 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/kevin-ashton-describes-the-internet-of-things-180953749/
Emily Schlickman is a landscape and urban designer at SWA, where she focuses on large-scale planning efforts with an emphasis on landscape-driven urban form and adaptive management. She co-leads the firm’s research and innovation lab, which provides insights into future conditions of the built environment, analysis of constructed spaces, new tools and technologies through experimentation, and topical studies.
Luke Hegeman, ASLA, LEED AP, is the founder of MODUS Collective, a firm that utilizes unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to investigate and implement new frameworks impacting analysis and representation. Luke holds a BSLA from Colorado State University and a Post-Professional MLA from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.
Brett Milligan is professor of landscape architecture and environmental design at the University of California, Davis. He is a founding member of the Dredge Research Collaborative and the director of Metamorphic Landscapes, a research lab prototyping adaptation to conditions of accelerated climatic and environmental change through design research and extensive field research. The lab’s project research focuses on floodplains, urbanized deltas, estuaries, and the dynamic interface between land and water.
Chris S. Sherwin, RLA is an Associate Landscape Architect at Surface Design Inc. in San Francisco with over twenty years of professional experience. His work combines strategic planning and urban design with the construction of complex public spaces and utilizes emerging technologies such as BIM, Cloud-Collaboration, Modeling, and UAV applications.