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Aerial footage of surfers at Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz (DJI Phantom) (via Eric Cheng on Vimeo)

It’s difficult to appreciate, given the ubiquity afforded by camera phones and low-cost digital cameras, but the ability to photograph our space can be a powerful act. I’m particularly struck by a story of a man searching for the owner of a camera lost at sea three years prior. Anyone who’s lost images on a broken SD card knows the pain of parting with precious images.

One area where we have little control over imagery is from above. While we can dig into Google’s aerial images of the entire world, these images belong to satellites and databases, and we can’t control when and how the images are taken. A zip through Google Earth can be fun and interesting, but it’s a prescribed experience, a video game-like environment determined by engineers with data sets and existing footage.

I recently learned about Skypixel.org, a project by underwater photographer Eric Cheng who has taken his talents to the skies. Cheng’s site compiles his own works and those of others who are using drones to take stunning pictures from above ground, with significantly lower costs than hiring a pilot and taking a plan or helicopter. Quadcopters outfitted with a GoPro or other camera are still out of reach for most people, but the costs will no doubt decrease over time. Though more commercial in nature, Cheng’s work should be seen in the context of grassroots mapping techniques like the Public Laboratory’s balloon mapping kit and the cheekily-titled One Satellite Per Child.

The Drones & Aerial Robotics Conference Logo

But what it also brings to the table is a richer and more complex dialogue about drones. Topics at the recent Drone Conference, which picked up a lot of interest this weekend, ranged from military drones to toy drones for hobbyists. That we’ve focused on unmanned aerial vehicles as tools for surveillance and militarism is not without justification; these are very real concerns that need to be addressed through policy and public debate. But drones can be used to track hurricanes in areas too dangerous for humans and follow endangered animals with minimal disruption. And as Cheng’s photos demonstrate, they can also show beauty and delight.

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An Xiao

Artist An Xiao (aka An Xiao Mina) photographs, films, installs, performs and tweets and has shown her work in publications and galleries internationally. Find her online at @anxiaostudio...