Mapping the Drone

Non-human in anthropology

Online resources accompanying the collective monograph chapter ›Mapping the Drone. Sonic Agents in Urban Soundscapes‹, published in:

Link to the publisherPetr Gibas, Karolína Pauknerová, Marco Stella et al. (2011): Non-humans in Social Science: Animals, Spaces, Things. Červený Kostelec: Pavel Mervart, p. 117-136. ISBN 978-80-7465-010-9 
A pre-print of this chapter is available here.
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The text can be read as an attempt to understand sound (and traffic noise in particular) from a different perspective. As sound recordist and professional urban flaneur Des Coulam puts it:

›For me, noise is sound in the wrong place and usually in the wrong quantity. But what if we think not of traffic noise but of traffic sounds. What if we think less about traffic as noise pollution and more in terms of traffic as a sound tapestry in its own right. True, it won’t eliminate traffic as a major source of noise pollution blighting our environment but it might help us to come to terms with it a little better and it might even help us to find something engaging rather than something completely hostile. It might even become, if not a friend, then perhaps less of an enemy.‹ (See the complete entry on Parisian traffic including a custom-built sound piece at his blog Soundlandscapes)

With ›Mapping the Drone. Sonic Agents in Urban Soundscapes‹ I take a similar path by treating ›the drone‹ as a certain species of ›sonic agents‹, with the city as its primary habitat, keeping record of some of their ›behavioural patterns‹, and discussing several visualization methods for sounds (such as quantitative noise maps, graphical time-cycles and traffic flow simulations).

In the following you will find the sound and video examples as quoted in the text:

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The drone of Gdańsk

A field recording that I took on top of the tower of St. Mary’s church in Gdańsk, Poland in 2010 may come quite close to what Augoyard and Torgue once addressed with the ›drone effect‹ (Augoyard and Torgue 2006, p. 40ff). The tower of St. Mary’s church is about 75 meters high. The stereo microphone pointed at the sky so that it primarily recorded the indirect sound reflections of the drone arising from the city below.

Date: 2010-08-30; Time: 6:22pm; Location: Gdańsk; Length: 0’15

Augoyard, J.-F., and Torgue Henry, eds. 2006. Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds. Montreal, Kingston: McGill Queens Univ Pr.
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Traffic noise, Berlin – time stretch manipulated –

Two field recordings of traffic sound from Ackerstraße/Bernauer Straße and from Ackerstraße/Torstraße, Berlin.

Both recordings are radically changed in duration and in tone pitch. First, traffic sounds are replayed in quick-motion. After 30 seconds, it starts to fade over to traffic sounds in slow-motion.

These modifications are meant to highlight some rythmical patterns in the ›behaviour‹ of drones across the city, on a macroscopic as well as on a microscopic level.

Date: 2006; Time: -; Location: Berlin; Length: 1’38

At the end you can hear the sound of a German ambulance siren replayed very slowly (at the very end you will hear a short bit in normal pitch).

This piece is one of the results from Sensing the Street, an ethnographic-artistic urban research and exhibition Project held at Institut für Europäische Ethnologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin 2006-2009 under the direction of Prof. Rolf Lindner. Online-documentation of the project:
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Civil air traffic worldwide, 24h

This video simulation lifts our perspective on a global focus. It shows all scheduled flights over a 24h period worldwide. Every day 93000 flights are starting from approximately 9000 airports. So at all times there are between 8000 and 13000 airplanes in the air.

Although this simulation is not explicitly linked to noise it can still sensitize us to the fact that cities are connected through global drone corridors. As suggested by these global airline flows, and together with a whole network of roads, freeways and railways, cities can reasonably be conceived as agglomerations and junctions of drone passages.
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Visualizing traffic jam in Lisbon

The following example shows to the varying road traffic flows in the inner city. The simulation depicts the average speeds of vehicles as they move through different channels in the city of Lisbon, Portugal. The simulation relies on GPS data collected in October 2009. The movements of 1534 vehicles throughout on month are condensed in a 24h day, as indicated by the counter in the upper left corner.

Here, the average speeds are mapped with different colours: cool green signifies rapid transit arteries, red areas represent sluggish areas with slow traffic.

Again, it is not sound that we observe here, but a simulation based on GPS data. Still, if we assume that the intensity of the drone is dependent upon the traffic volume as well as on its speed, the simulation is useful for our purpose. Most notably, it is apt to visualize some of the temporal patterns in the actual traffic flows that are generally to be perceived through sound, including the recurrent pattern of the city’s centripetal/ centrifugal forces attracting/ dispelling the drone.
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Train recording

The sound of a train is a complex coaction of several physical and material conditions involved on the one hand – like railway carriages, more or less corroded rail tracks and so on – as well as between the many driving forces behind this process on the other hand – such as gravity, the driver and the engine. This sonic agent (as any other) has its own morphological characteristics, conveying rich sonic information about its movements, size, and its material composition.

Train passing S-Bahnhof Friedrichstraße track 2, Berlin. Date: 2011-06-21; Time: 06:24pm; Location: Berlin; Length: 00’37


Cusack, P., and M. Vojtěchovský. 2011. Favourite sounds of Prague – Nejmilejší zvuky Prahy. (accessed February 3rd, 2011).

Defra. 2007. Defra, UK – Environmental Protection – Noise and Nuisance: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Communications Directorate. (accessed July 30, 2011).

Díaz Moreno, J. P., A. Arteaga, W. Knapp, and R. Lindner et al. 2008. Sensing the Street. Eine Straße in Berlin. Online-Dokumentation eines wissenschaftlich-künstlerischen Forschungs- und Ausstellungsprojekts. Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin; Universität der Künste Berlin. (accessed February 23, 2011).

Stanza. 2011. Soundcities. The Global Soundmaps Project. (accessed July 30, 2011).

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