If 2015 was the year consumer drones took off then 2016 is poised to be the year when curious and creative people use these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to push the limits of human imagination.
That’s what happened when Intel CEO Brian Krzanich asked marketing director of perceptual computing Anil Nanduri what he would do with 100 flying drones. He wanted Nanduri to find a way to push the boundaries and show people an exciting new way to experience the wonders of drone technology.
Nanduri put that challenge to a small group of artists and technology researchers at Ars Electronica Futurelab in Linz, Austria.
The team quickly created an outdoor flying drone light show syncopated to a live orchestra.
When all 100 light-equipped drones danced and painted 3D shapes and messages in sky above Flugplatz Ahrenlohe, Tornesch, near Hamburg, Germany in early November, a new record was born.
Dubbed Drone 100, the spectacle set a Guinness World Record for most UAVs airborne simultaneously. Official Guinness World Records adjudicator Pravin Patel was on hand to verify record and congratulate the technology company.
When video of Drone 100 was first shown during Krzanich’s CES 2016 keynote two months later, he said it redefined the fireworks experience without the inherent risks of traditional pyrotechnics.
“The past can be replaced by new creativity powered by drones,” he told the CES audience. “This is what it means to reinvent experiences using new technology.”
To transform the idea into reality, Horst Hoertner, senior director of Futurelab, said he focused on the future.
“It’s the only thing that can be created,” he said. “Everything else is already created. Hope and curiosity is the drive that helps you get things done that have never been done before,” he said.
Hoertner and his team of 15 people called the drones, “spaxels,” a hybrid of “space pixels.” He said he wanted to show how drones, known to many as weapons, can be used to create beauty and socially meaningful experiences.
The four pilots were led by Martin Morth, and each pilot controlled 25 drones as they lifted off from a soccer field in Hamburg.
But before the drones could launch from the field, engineers created software that allowed the drones to follow flight paths, turn on and off lights and move succinctly with one another to dramatic orchestra music.
“We developed our own ground-controls software,” said Futurelab’s Andreas Jalsovec, who led the choreography and show design for Drone 100.
He described it as animation software that requires powerful computing performance.
He translated his hand drawing into the 3D software to choreograph the precise flying positions of each drone. “We just took technology and made art out of it,” he said.
The goal for Intel was to combine curiosity with innovation to show what’s possible for UAVs, said Nanduri’s Intel teammate Natalie Cheung.
“We’re working with aviation entities to understand what the policies are, the rules and regulations, and make sure that drones are safe so we can have light shows like this,” said Cheung. “We can work together on different goals to make sure that it’s safe.”
In November, Nanduri led the first drone demonstration inside the U.S. Capitol during a visit to influence progressive safety policies for UAVs.
“Regulatory bodies have real issues and concerns, but how do we ensure that we as an industry help solve these problems by working with agencies like FAA and NASA,” Nanduri said, who ultimately wants standard, worldwide regulations.
Nanduri said the Drone 100 project was done in a private, secure site. The audience viewed it at a safe distance.
“That was the framework in which regulators saw it as a safe, risk-based approach, and they gave approval to do a night time flight,” he said.
He said that the FAA takes safety very seriously, so it’s up to leaders like Intel to demonstrate that these new technologies bring new opportunities and economic value.
“We want the US to be the leader in defining these frameworks under which we can integrate these new technologies,” he said.
Privacy is a common concern, but the Futurelab team wanted to show that it isn’t always about drones looking at people. Instead, people could be looking at drones as a form of art, communication, or research.
Hoertner sees people as naturally curious and filled with hope, and his team poured both into the Drone 100 project.
“That driving force is in all of us,” he said. “That makes us do things that some would say are crazy and others would say astonishing.”
He said Drone 100 is an example of combing art, technology and society to reveal new possibilities.
Nanduri said this the dawn of a new era for UAVs.
“Now they are getting new human-like senses, so they can see and react intelligently, in real-time to obstacles in their environment. This will open up new, creative ways for using UAVs.”