Exemptions from FAA regulations allowed Intel’s Drone 100 – a Guinness World record-setting sky light show – to perform for the first time in the U.S.
The sun dropped out of sight one evening in March. The blue sky turned dark above California’s Palm Desert except for 100 colorful dots that danced like fireflies syncopated to a live outdoor orchestra. Invited spectators sat 500 feet away from a makeshift landing pad and watched a centennial of drones turn the night sky into a vibrant ballet of flickering lights.
In an isolated part of Indio, the desert city neighboring Coachella (famous for its annual music festival) and Indian Wells (home of professional tennis tournaments), six minutes of mesmerizing aerial eye candy marked the first time the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allowed 100 drones to fly synchronously in U.S. airspace.
“Our goal is to do this over stadiums, over events that have large populations,” said Intel CEO and drone enthusiast Brian Krzanich. Drone 100 demonstrates that art, technology and government regulations working together can open possibilities for how aerial robots – drones – are used.
FAA drone regulations limit individuals and businesses from flying multiple drones simultaneously without special exemption. Since unmanned aerial systems (UAS) can pose risks to the busy and complex U.S. airspace, the FAA has taken incremental steps to address any hazards from the proliferation of drones.
“A positive regulatory environment can be the great enabler for drone innovation, safety and industry expansion,” said Krzanich, who in May was selected to lead the FAA’s Drone Advisory Council, which makes recommendations on UAS-related issues.
In late 2015, the first event set a Guinness World Record outside of Hamburg, Germany for most unmanned aerial vehicles airborne simultaneously. Before it could occur in U.S. airspace, however, Krzanich’s team needed to secure a Section 333 Exemption from the FAA, granting special permission for one pilot to operate multiple drones.
“We worked with the FAA, walked them through what our technology can do, step by step,” said Natalie Cheung, drone product manager at Intel.
Since safety is the FAA’s main concern, Cheung said demonstrating safeguards built into the automation and manual control systems was critical to winning the exemption to fly in the U.S.
The 100 flying robots were programmed to lift off, line up and create different shapes that pulsed with colorful light, disappearing for split seconds then reappearing in rhythmic perfection. In addition to choreographed moves, the 100 drones were trained to respect the 200-foot height limit, a broad rule the FAA raised to 400 feet just days later, showing how regulations are evolving.
The 100 drones were split into three groups with each group controlled by one laptop. A fourth so-called master laptop overriding them all was operated by Pilot in Command, Jeff Lo.
“My laptop can select all the drones and tell them to come home,” said Lo, a technical marketing manager at Intel who has an FAA-issued pilot certificate and leads a biplane racing team in his spare time.
He said in the U.S., the FAA requires a certificated pilot to operate commercial drone flights.
“Presumably, regulators want commercial drone pilots to understand the air traffic control system, where the airports are, how to find the right information and alert other airmen if necessary,” said Lo.
While three assistant pilots monitored battery voltages and other aspects of each set of drones, Lo kept tabs on weather conditions and made sure no drone flew outside designated air space.
Ascending Technologies, now part of Intel, built the100 drones. PCs powered by Intel processors were used to develop and run the drone automation and control system.
“A mountain of data comes from these drones,” said Lo.
Each drone relies on the unlicensed 2.4GHz spectrum – the same spectrum used by wi-fi – for wireless communication with the command center laptops. They use GPS and barometric pressure sensors to calculate their proper position.
One onboard processor runs the basic flight mechanics of holding position and changing rotor speeds, which steers each drone. Another processor is programmed to take wireless communication commands for navigation and that turn on and off lights, and change colors.
Looking ahead, Lo said that drone technologies such as computer vision, innovations like 5G wireless networks and solid regulation combined will help make drones more intelligence, reliable and safe.
“Flying has always given me a wonderful feeling of freedom since you can move in any direction,” said Lo. “Even if I’m not inside the drone, I still have that sense of freedom to move in three dimensions. Now imagine multiplying that by a hundred then add lights and music!“
Airfield photos by Jeff Lo.
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