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Nowadays, drones have become ubiquitous such that their potential seems limitless. The flying robots are being tested to find lost kids, manage traffic, gather news, inspect aircraft, deliver mail, drugs and pizza. However, they’re often used by the military to spy and to kill.

This brings about an interesting question, what would Leonardo da Vinci, the tech visionary of his era, do with drones?

Vesna Kittelson Exhibition

This is what Minneapolis artist Vesna Kittelson tries to answer in her exhibition, named “Da Vinci and the Drone.”

The exhibition first opened on May 19, 2016, at Form + Content Gallery in Minneapolis, and featured Kittelson’s drawings, a limited-edition handmade book, and a sculpture built from a modified CIA Reaper spy drone. It will run through June 25.

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“Tech is not my field, but I think he would be on top of it. He would be a designer of drones,” Kittelson said. “He would no doubt work with the top agencies that pay very well.” By top agencies, she meant the likes of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which are acquiring up the latest tech innovations, she said.

After the Minneapolis exhibit ends, the prototype for her Da Vinci and the Drone book will go to the Tate Library and Archives, a London collection of artists’ books that also owns her four-volume Mrs. Darwin’s Garden.

Kittelson was born and bred in what is now referred to as Croatia, an island-rich country on the Adriatic Sea. The Croatia of her childhood was part of Yugoslavia, a Communist country that was torn apart by ethnic wars in the 1990s. She has been married for over 45 years to David Kittelson and is still highly attuned to the politics of personal liberty.

“I grew up thinking it was Russia that was spying on its people,” Kittelson said. “But one day about two years ago, I came to realize that drones are here to stay and that our country is spying on its citizens. It is surveillance that we and our children and grandchildren have to live with. The question is, why?”

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Like most inquisitive people, Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519) was fascinated with birds and their ability to soar through the heavens. He drew obsessively and has tried severally to grasp how they managed to fly. In addition, he had drawn elaborate mechanical devices to lift humans and make them fly—glider-like contraptions, wings rigged with pulleys and ropes, and prototypes for helicopters.

“He was inventing war machines, tanks, catapults, dams, and he wanted to map Italy, so he had many reasons to investigate flight,” Kittelson said. “But to me, the most wonderful thing was that for 30 years he was always buying birds in the market and releasing them so he could study their flight.”

Highlights of the Exhibition

The centerpiece of Kitterson’s exhibit is her accordion-fold book, which juxtaposes an essay on Leonardo with several ruminative drawings. She started with images of Icarus, the mythical Greek boy who fell from the sky and died after the feather and wax wing his father, Daedalus, made for him was melted by the sun. His death was seen as a metaphor for hubris and humanity’s decided reckless overconfidence in technology.

Following this are several images of angels and birds, details of feathers, a wing drawing, and then sketches of Da Vinci’s flying machines. Kittelson also garnished the pages with images of early balloons, the plane made by the Wright brothers, Leonardo’s fan-like propeller blades, modern drones, Superman, and a hummingbird.

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Originally created by Lois Eliason, the essay outlines Da Vinci’s contributions to human flight and the technical limitations of his pre-industrial era.

According to Kittelson, Da Vinci “was a man of details and his drawings are beautiful, but he needed the support of other minds and technologies not available then.”

“Drones often fail because their fixed wings can’t adapt to turbulence or changes in wind speed or direction,” she said. “They just fall out of the sky and crash. So scientists are studying hummingbirds, this tiny creature that can hover. Unlike a drone, a hummingbird is totally stable in different climates and air conditions because it can move its wings asymmetrically. It knows how to stabilize itself to get that nectar.

“Like Da Vinci, even now scientists have to study nature,” Kittelson said. “The drone is supposed to be a perfect machine, except the hummingbird is more perfect. I love that.”

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