Drone Couture: Designing Invisibility

While scientists work toward perfecting the invisibility cloak, one designer has already developed a line of clothing that makes people invisible to robots

The Stealth Wear hoodie in thermal IR
The Stealth Wear hoodie in thermal IR Adam Harvey via ahprojects.com

Invisibility has long been a dream of man. Popular culture has depicted it as both a science –think Star Trek’s cloaking devices and the Invisible Man’s formula– and magic – Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak comes to mind– but the distinction between the two classifications may be, as Arthur C. Clark famously postulated, only a matter of technological advancement. For example, late last year a team of scientists at Duke University took one step closer to making magic a reality when they developed a “meta-material” capable of bending light to cloak a two-dimensional object from microwave radiation. Not quite true invisibility, but “transformation optics” is an exciting new field leading us into a very Star Trek future. However, designer Adam Harvey is planning for more of a Terminator future (and for some people a very real present), where drones patrol our skies, watching our every move with their heat-seeking camera-eyes. So while current science is working toward concealing objects from the human eye, Harvey has already developed a line of clothing that makes people nearly invisible to the machine eye.

Harvey, in collaboration with fashion designer Johanna Bloomfield, has developed Stealth Wear, a new fashion line “designed for counter-surveillance.” The “Anti-Drone garments” are a response to a very real concern about the growing loss of privacy and the increased use of new surveillance technologies and autonomous drones. Although they’re most often deployed in war zones, drones are starting to be used by police for domestic surveillance and security as well. They can be equipped with video cameras, radar, infrared cameras and heat sensors. The Stealth Wear garments are made with a light-weight, “metallized” (half-silver, half-nickel) fabric that reflects heat, making it capable of blocking IR and thermal imaging scans. It’s urban camouflage that’s a little more pragmatic than an IKEA ghillie suit. Currently, three garments are available: the anti-drone hoodie (pictured) and, acknowledging that the majority of current drone strikes happen in country’s with primarily Muslim populations, the anti-drone burqa and the anti-drone scarf. The designers notes that “Conceptually, these garments align themselves with the rationale behind the traditional hijab and burqa: to act as ‘the veil which separates man or the world from God,’ replacing God with drone.” Not being watched by robots is the new black.

However, Harvey’s work avoids making any overtly political statements in favor of a more academic interest in camouflage and the intersection of art, technology, and politics. Stealth Wear isn’t 100% effective in blocking heat signatures but, as Harvey told The Globe and Mail, that’s not the point: “These clothes are proxies for generating something else, whether it’s a conversation about privacy and responsible use of technology, or a policy change.” While “invisibility cloak” is magical and whimsical and currently exists only on the bleeding edge of science, “anti-drone hoodie” is a little more sinister, a little more practical, and a little more couture.

Stealth Wear isn’t Harvey’s only work dealing with electronic surveillance. He previously created, CV Dazzle, a sort of makeup designed to disrupt facial recognition software, and is currently working on For Your Eyes Only, a project that aims to subvert automatic object recognition to prevent machines from identifying objects.

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