How drones became entertainment

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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

‘Spaxels’

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.

Shooting stars

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.

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