Imagining a Drone-Proof City in the Age of Surveillance

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As drones become increasingly common tools of war and surveillance on the battlefield and in our cities, how are architects and designers responding?

Previously, we’ve looked at personal counter-surveillance measures, but it’s likely that future designers will move beyond the scale of the individual to larger projects such as drone-proof architecture or perhaps even urban-scale counter-surveillance.

Concerned about what he sees as the improper or unjustified use of drones, law student Asher J. Kohn has imagined how an anti-drone city might look and function. This isn’t a science fiction scenario, but a seriously considered urban design strategy. In fact, considering that the speculative plan for what Kohn has named “Shura City” is designed to counter the most technologically sophisticated weapons ever developed, the proposal is surprisingly low-tech.

Shura City disrupts the machines’ equipment and confuses remote operators through the careful use of materials and design strategies. “What this project proposes is a new way to think about space. Drone warfare proposes that every inch of land is (and all of its inhabitants are) part of the battle space,” says Kohn.

The anti-drone city must be logical enough for inhabitants to navigate, yet random enough to befuddle automated surveillance. Kohn, not a trained designer, is vague on the interior layout, but suggests a flexible, adaptable plan inspired by Moshe Safdie’s Habitat, the high-density, modular residential project built as part of the 1967 Montreal Expo. Key features of Shura City include colored glass-block windows to prevent unwanted surveillance, a transparent roof enclosure that provides both thermal control to undermine drones’ heat sensors as well as a complex structural and lighting system to create a visual interference for drone tracking systems.

This confusion is all carefully optimized to prevent individual targeting. Minarets (or church steeples or other religious towers) surround the city; an important cultural gesture gesture to unite the community that has the added effect of interrupting drone flight patterns.

There are, of course some near-future sci-fi-ish features included, such as QR code window screens that communicate to the passing drones, “letting the machines outside know that they are not welcome and should fear coming closer.”

The proposal isn’t meant as a call to arms to anti-drone architects, but a demonstration to inspire all professions to consider interacting with drones instead of simply being subjected to them. As Kohn notes, “This project is merely intended as a setting-off point for discussions on proper defense and on what ‘proper defense’ might mean.”

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