By Rob Walker
Unmanned aerial vehicles—popularly referred to as drones—have become arguably the most buzzed-about, and divisive, technology of the moment. Some politicians (and a good chunk of the public) see them as tools of a burgeoning surveillance society; but enthusiastic hobbyists insist the technology can be useful, cool and fun. While that debate simmers, the most fearless and impatient influencers of public space have forged ahead to put drones to use in the world.
I’m referring of course to marketers.
Ars Electronica Futurelab reports that “a squadron of 30 LED-studded AscTec Hummingbirds hovered above Potters Fields Park near London’s Tower Bridge” over the weekend. But these minidrones weren’t there to spy or intimidate. Instead, they formed the Star Trek badge. It was a promotional stunt for the forthcoming movie, “Star Trek—Into Darkness.” Evidently, the age of drone-vertising has arrived.
Futurelab is the in-house R&D unit of the art-and-technology-focused Ars Electronica organization in Linz, Austria. Its quadcopter swarm debuted last year, with 49 UAVs flying in formation for the purpose of, basically, inspiring awe and wonder. It’s no surprise that somebody would dream up the notion of trying to capture such emotion on behalf of a major motion picture.
Doing so in a major metropolitan area, however, does bring to mind the ill-fated “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” guerilla-marketing stunt in 2007, when Boston authorities mistook blinking electronic promo signs for bombs of some sort, and freaked out.
This London promotion doesn’t seem to have inspired any such trouble, and indeed the only images I’ve seen of the Trek swarm seem to be coming from official sources—most notably a YouTube video promoting the stunt, and the film, currently making the rounds on Mashable and other sites. Perhaps we’re already getting blasé about the implications of a sky full of flying robots? “Ah, that’s no scary threat from above,” we shrug. “It’s just an ad for something.”