a murmuration of drones

I saw them to the East lit in semaphore flashes by the falling Winter Sun, set against fluffy pink clouds flowing languidly inland. Moving together as a fluid, mercurial and quicksilver, this way and that, a coordinated dance of shiny metallic starlings. They seemed to circle chaotically over some unseen attractor below.

In nature, they call this behavior a murmuration. Before they figured out how to make the microdrones pay attention to each other the mechanism of this kind of coordinated flock movement in birds was poorly understood. It still is but somewhere amidst the algorithmic tinkering the behavior emerged. The microdrones began to flock & swarm, mutually aware and clocked to such high frequencies that even the most sudden moves, the most aggressive pitch and yaw, were stretched out into a slow steadiness that yielded impossibly complex and graceful murmurations. Their autonomy became precise, their agency social and explicit.

At first the flocks needed some hand-holding. A group could be addressed as a whole by a remote pilot. Each member managed its own position relative to its neighbors but the meshnet required some steering and course-correction. Then they started setting paths for the flocks to follow. Eventually their agency was so sophisticated and their flocking behaviors so natural, that only the barest instructions were necessary. Survey coordinates above Golden Gate Park. Reconnoiter a 10-block radius around the intersection of Market and Van Ness. Open patrol within the city limits, look for mobile signature “Mike Patton”. The microdrones activate, take flight, flock & murmurate towards the objective, often staying autonomous for days, resting on rooftops and power lines for solar recharge.

Many look like hummingbirds, others like flying silver fish. Sometimes you’ll see an exotic DIY drone trying to join a flock. It usually doesn’t work out so well. Others are barely recognizable from real birds. They say the Chinese flocks are like bats, emitting little chirps to echolocate each other. Occasionally an old lumbering Reaper or re-conditioned Predator passes into the survey of the microdrone flocks and it’s like Blue Jays chasing off a hawk. The autonomous swarms almost seem to have real contempt for the intrusions of these old piloted interlopers.

Flickering & glinting, shifting like pixels on an old screensaver suggesting a language beneath words, a living billboard to communicate some inchoate embryonic intention. The sunset murmuration arced and folded with unimaginable grace for mere machines. But then, nature works through our hands to be recast into the Technium. We’re a bit slow sometimes but we humans are nothing if not excellent iterators.

Then, a flash. A tear in the rippling fabric followed by a quick resolution as the seam is fixed. A glitch in a bot becomes a calculation error, a biased trajectory, a sudden collision mid-air. A broken hull, stained with the black carbon of conflagration; a mess of chips and servos, cables and sensors falling to the ground below. Children gather them as toys and aspirational totems. Drone-spotters collect & catalog the bits for their taxonomies of fetishized hardware. Hobbyists pick through the parts for opportunities to reverse engineer their military precision. And each works quickly to outpace the recovery units and cleaning herds that roam the terra firma.

Theron, a child and a DIY engineer by default, himself hybridized with a cochlear implant and a neuroprosthetic leg, gathers a broken silver shell, fractured carbon-fiber wings diaphanous and reticulated, an intact sensor array, and a mostly-salvageable board. He’ll keep the sensors and try to sell the board. A milspec microdrone sensorium is hard to come by and will do well to upgrade his pets.


  1. Michael Garfield

    Nice! I think about these things all the time. Glad to read someone else’s imaginative forays about the living future…

    Not to spam you but I think you’ll appreciate my own creative vision of how this hybrid reality is changing the way we see ourselves:

    Not a flock of drones, but of people. Cheers to finding your writing in my sensorium! :)

  2. chris arkenberg

    Thanks, Michael. And thanks for the link to your piece. Looks like we’re both tugging at many similar threads, though from slightly different angles. I was also entertained by the comment exchange. ;)

    And kudos on writing for Hybrid Reality/Big Think! Consider me jealous. :) I’ve been following Parag’s work for some time.


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