If Light Could Fly

  • Written by Lorna Goulden, at 15-10-2013
    - Tuesday October 15, 2013

Approaching innovation with a deliberate focus on the end-user, I tend to adopt a rather simplified categorization of technology; looking at it from an enabling capabilities perspective where it is either evolutionary or disruptive.

Evolutionary technologies tend to provide a smaller, faster, more standardized and efficient iteration of existing capabilities, enabling us to do what we could already do, only a lot better. Disruptive technologies on the other hand are the drivers of more radical change, they often consist of interesting combinations and mingling’s of existing technologies that inspire, enable or even require us to do things differently, very differently!

Drones fall into this last category for me . . . . disruptive

00 DRONE Photo 2

Flying street lighting

At Strijp-S in Eindhoven, drones, or ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAV’s), have provided the inspiration behind the development of an experimental prototype of flying street lighting which I am currently working on with technical partner Metatronics, for Eindhoven City Council.

Originally inspired by a sustainable vision; material reduction (no need for lampposts), energy reduction (light only where light is needed) and social-economic development (creating a more attractive and personal urban experience), this disruptive technology is driving an entirely new way of thinking about how we interact with our urban environment and how it interacts with us.    

STRIJP S ConceptsStrijp-S: Creating a Public Lighting Experience publication: ideas for lamppost reduction and more personal public lighting that you can literally take with you (2008)

Interaction scenarios for Strijp-S


Masters’ student Wolfgang Klein, from the interaction design department of Zurich’s University of the Arts, was recruited in the summer of 2011 to develop the idea of flying light at Strijp-S. He created a series of inspirational interaction scenarios before going on to develop his masters thesis with the Aurora concept “Aurora uses lighting to let people define public space themselves: The city adapts to them—not vice versa as usual.” (Wolfgang Klein 2011)

The delightful potential for disruption

What makes drone technology particularly inspirational, when placed in the outdoor lighting context, is how it introduces an entirely new range of capabilities and qualities, which in turn challenge existing expectations of how our urban environment behaves. The more familiar passive rigidity – regular rows of ‘white’ light fixed to lampposts – is being gently nudged by a highly dynamic, interactive and unpredictable potential. While new interactions and innovative functions for (public) lighting become possible, we have no previous knowledge or experience on which to base these developments (beyond a handful of projects, such as the impressive Ars Electronica FutureLab demonstration and equally inspiring Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors' Showcase 2012 with Meet Your Creator Quadrotor Show) . . . introducing the delightful potential for disruption.

Living lab

The technical, regulatory and budgetary challenges of this project not withstanding (and believe me there are many challenges!) the Living Lab nature of Strijp-S provides an ideal urban test-bed where a potentially controversial design can be experienced and challenged; critically discussed and iteratively developed, so that ultimately the new value can emerge.

Quality of experience

One of the key aspects that I am particularly focused on, as the creative partner in the project, is the development of the overall quality of the experience. Drones have of course been building up a rather dark reputation of late; their surveillance and military antics have not been winning them any popularity votes. But should such a character smear be irrefutably attributed to a technology regardless of the context? With our first prototypes the goal is not limited to having light flying around, but to develop the nature of the form, the light, the level of interaction and animation. How should they fly? How should they move? and how should they respond to people and the environment in order to generate a more accepting perception, or perhaps even a welcoming or playful and most definitely a more personal experience? Introducing at any rate a new perspective to the drone discussion.

Experience inspiration

Moving beyond the specific urban scenarios for Strijp-S, the unique and innovative capabilities that this technology provides us with has also inspired a range of additional potential applications, in situations and contexts that will hopefully shed an entirely different light on the potential and the future of Drone technology. 

What if light could fly ?

06 Country Lane

Country Lane © 2013 Lorna Goulden

A valuable capability of flying light is that it functions ‘off the grid’. For areas where grid installation is not an option, or not desired, flying light can provide excellent temporary street lighting for infrequent passers-by. Minimal intervention is required in natural environments, where there are no people there is no light and no disruptive infrastructure left behind – the drones’ will even bring themselves back to base for maintenance.  For this application attention to noise reduction of the drone technology would be a valuable development.


05 Blind Spot

Blind-spot © 2013 Lorna Goulden

This more personally oriented proposal offers improved safety for cyclists. A pair of drones function alternately as either the rear bicycle light, docking onto the parcel rack to also charge the flight battery via a dynamo, or as an ‘angel’ flying ahead to strategically alert other road users or pedestrians to the presence and vulnerability of an approaching bicycle. 


01 Hurricane Aftermath

Hurricane Aftermath © 2013 Lorna Goulden

When the regular electricity grid has been compromised and streets are plunged into darkness, a rapid-response fleet of drones can be engaged to support rescue efforts deep into the night. Not only can they provide wide area coverage of street lighting, a connected system of flying lights can also actively guide emergency services and citizens towards designated safe zones. 


02 Earthquake Rescue

Earthquake rescue © 2013 Lorna Goulden

While focused earthquake rescue efforts usually involve portable generators to floodlight rescue areas this can be complemented with drone lighting to dynamically expand both the range and the focus of rescue visibility. Drones equipped with advanced sensing equipment can further enhance ‘visibility’ below the surface by searching for signs of life, particularly useful in areas that may be dangerous or difficult to reach. 


03 Monsoon Search

Monsoon search © 2013 Lorna Goulden

The widespread devastation of floods creates an enormous challenge for rescue efforts. A coordinated ‘grid’ scan by a large fleet of drones can provide a fast and efficient indication of where stranded people and animals are located. Drones can mark the location not only by transmitting network positioning but also by creating a vertical flashing beacon visible from a distance so that all available boats in the vicinity are able to more effectively home-in their rescue efforts. Drones can also be used to fly-in survival supplies, food, water and survival blankets to victims, to provide temporary support until structural rescue can reach them.


04 Lost At Sea

Lost at sea © 2013 Lorna Goulden

Providing additional support to coast-guards or even carried as a structural rescue device on passenger boats and cruise ships, drones can make fast sweeps of large areas of open sea using sophisticated scanning equipment to speed up the critical time it takes to locate someone lost at sea.


07 Mountain Rescue

Mountain search & rescue © 2013 Lorna Goulden

Mountain search & rescue efforts involve critical timing, in particular after an avalanche when minutes lost can literally mean the difference between life and death. An advanced drone fleet can be engaged to quickly scan a wide area for personal locating beacon signals, Recco signals or body-heat signs. Drones are cheaper to keep in the air than a rescue helicopter, and flying close to the ground they can be far less disruptive in unstable snow conditions than a low-flying helicopter. Drones can also be used to guide climbers, skiers or hikers who have lost their way, or if immobilized they can alerting rescue operations by sending their location using for example GPS or even include photographs of the location to guide the rescue teams on the ground. 


© 2013 Lorna Goulden all rights reserved