Drones are literal lifesavers. They’re ferrying medical samples between hospitals, giving firefighters in San Diego a top-down view of hot spots, and helping keep South Florida’s exploding mosquito population under control.
But when autonomous quadcopters aren’t helping folks stay out of harm’s way, they’re putting on shows — theater and light shows, to be exact. Drones performed with Canadian rap artist Drake during an appearance in Chicago, and they swirled above attendees at last year’s Burning Man. And over 200 of them danced last year to coordinated fireworks and music on Al Marjan Island.
Perhaps it’s no wonder PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates the market for drone-powered spectacles and special effects at $8.8 billion. But how did drones get so big practically overnight?
Drones of a different sort
Two European startups are credited with pioneering the drone-based light shows that now regularly make appearances at Super Bowl halftimes: Ars Electronica and Ascending Technologies (which Intel acquired in 2016).
Ars Electronica, a Linz, Austria-based educational and scientific institute in the field of new media art, houses the Museum of the Future and runs an annual arts festival. But it also manages a multidisciplinary R&D facility known as the Futurelab, which is reportedly where the seeds of the concept took root.
In 2012, Futurelab published a paper (“Spaxels, Pixels in Space — A Novel Mode of Spatial Display“) proposing algorithms for orchestrating swarms of LED-equipped quadcopters — Spaxels, a portmanteau of “space” and “pixels” — that would fly synchronously in patterns that recreate images and objects. The coauthors demonstrated their work at the annual Ars Electronica festival in 2014, when 50 Spaxels flew in cube-shaped and cylindrical patterns high above the Danube, and subsequently in locations from Sweden to Australia.
Around the same time, Krailling, Germany-based Ascending Technologies devised a technique it called “light painting” to spice up the night sky. The company’s sense-and-avoid algorithms, which it used in its own quadcopters and licensed to third-party manufacturers, prevented fleets of luminous drones from colliding when they came too close.
Intel’s venture arm, Intel Capital, invested in Ascending Technologies prior to acquiring it outright, and Intel partnered with the company in 2015 to integrate its RealSense image and depth-recognition technology with the aforementioned algorithms. The chipmaker demoed the fruit of its efforts during a keynote at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, and later that year with a 100-drone, seven-minute light show over the Ahrenlohe Airfield outside of Hamburg, Germany — set to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. (This earned Intel the Guinness World Record for the most unmanned aerial vehicles airborne simultaneously.)
Intel put on a post-purchase performance during the 2016 Vivid Sydney event in Australia, where its airborne fleet was accompanied by the Sydney Youth Orchestra. But those quadcopters — dubbed Drone 100 — were seriously limited both by weight (they clocked in at over two pounds) and complexity (shows involving them took five months to build). Moreover, they had to be mapped manually (a process that could take a team of more than 15 people), and required setting up an airfield and manually resetting, updating, and charging each unit before flights.
Intel’s next-generation, purpose-built Shooting Star changed all that. Today it comes in two flavors: Shooting Star Mini and the original, full-sized Shooting Star.
Shooting Star Mini drones are made from plastic and foam and have propeller cages to protect people in case they come too close. The drones weigh 0.73 pounds, and their LEDs — which can produce more than 4 billion color combinations — are designed to be controlled by a single computer and operator. Onboard algorithms handle the choreography and optimize the flight path, and they locate the drones in space without the need for GPS.
Both the Shooting Star Mini and Shooting Star drones can fly in light rain, thanks to splash-proof exteriors, and they’re able to maintain stability in wind speeds of up to 33 feet per second for about 20 minutes. Before flights, a supervisory control system checks each drone and selects the best-optimized units based on battery level, GPS reception strength, and other factors. Intel says the Shooting Star system takes as little as “days” to deploy and that a fleet of 500 can be managed by just a handful of people.
Show designers have a choice when it comes to crafting the drones’ flight patterns: They can let the software automatically determine the fastest paths from pictures (like a logo or graphic) or recruit a team of animators to draw up the show using 3D modeling software.
Intel’s not the only one with drones built to entertain.
Take Verity Studios, for example. The Zurich-based live events and robotics company — which last June raised $18 million in series A funding and counts Metallica, Drake, Royal Caribbean, and Cirque du Soleil among its clients — has completed 120,000 autonomous indoor flights in more than 20 countries around the world.
Verity’s custom-engineered Lucie drone has a form factor comparable to Intel’s Shooting Star but supports a wider range of accoutrements. Lucie weighs just 50 grams (1.8 ounces), can fly for up to three minutes per hour of charging, and packs a high-intensity RGBW light that’s fully reprogrammable. Localization units define the boundaries of the flight space, allowing the drone to perform without cameras or carpets, and fleets of up to 40 juice up in charging racks that are designed to be transported from set to set and stage to stage.
Modified Lucie models dubbed Stage Flyers can carry lamp shades, cameras, mirrors, and other stage effects, such as confetti. Because they operate largely overhead (above either performers or audience members), they have a built-in failsafe system that can coordinate a graceful landing even if a battery, motor, connector, propeller, or sensor fails.
For clients whose requests are a bit more involved, Verity retains a team of drone “costume designers” to create bespoke outfits, like jellyfish, disco balls, and flowers. These are ultra-light and flight-tested, designed to be used either alone or with a flying light show.
Shows around the world
Drone shows have only grown in popularity over the years.
Intel’s Shooting Star featured prominently in Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl LI halftime show in 2017, when 300 Shooting Stars formed an American flag in the sky. Later in the year, during Art Basel Miami Beach 2017, Intel worked with Studio Drift (an Amsterdam-based artist duo founded in 2007) and BMW to create a 300-drone motion art installation.
About 150 Shooting Star drones took flight during the Super Bowl LIII Halftime Show, but the largest drone sporting event performance to date was for the 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony and involved more than 1,218 drones flying in sequence.
Intel recently teamed up with Universal Studios Hollywood to choreograph drones with the Dark Arts at Hogwarts Castle, a light projection show at the studio’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction, and it animated a gigantic twirling Christmas tree at Disney’s annual Starbright Holidays event. (Fun fact: Disney’s permission waiver from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which covers both its Florida and California theme parks, requires that drone operators have remote pilot certificates.)
Intel’s drones headlined at Coachella music festival for the second year in a row last year, and 2,018 of them flew over Folsom, California to celebrate Intel’s 50th anniversary. They’ve also made appearances at Singapore’s 52nd birthday and a Pride celebration to honor Intel’s LGBTQ employees.
As of July 2018, Intel said it had obtained licenses to operate drones in 15 countries through its Shooting Star program.
Elsewhere, the Christmas Spectacular starring the Radio City Rockettes — an annual holiday stage show presented at Radio City Music Hall in New York City — last year added more than 100 Shooting Star Mini drones, marking the first time the quadcopters were incorporated into an indoor theatrical performance. Intel claimed at the time that it was the world’s largest interior drone show, but it’s not the first — Paris-based Parrot two years ago teamed up with tech firm BeTomorrow to incorporate its Bepop 2 drones into a dance routine on U.K. TV show Britain’s Got Talent.
So how will drone-based entertainment evolve in the future? Companies like Uvify and Latvia might offer a clue.
China-based UVify claims to have developed a drone swarm for indoor and outdoor shows that can be rented for a subscription fee. (It calls this model “drone-as-a-service.”) Its portable, stackable, LED-sporting quadcopters have a flight time of up to 25 minutes and integrated GPS and redundant systems that “ensure positioning” and “overcome interference.”
Meanwhile, Latvia-based software company SPH Engineering offers a drone dance controller that enables customers who pay the $12,000-and-up licensing fee to upload 3D animations and distribute files to multiple show drones.
Perhaps drone-based entertainment will one day spread to startup staffers, event organizers, and even hobbyists. In the U.S., clearer guidance from the FAA will likely be required along the way, but the democratization of light-up choreographed drones seems closer than ever before.