The 2017 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival took fans into the future when 300 synchronized Shooting Star drones illuminated the night sky above center stage.
A crowd of more than 100,000 Coachella concertgoers saw history in the making when 300 Intel Shooting Star drones colored the night sky. The dancing drones took the shape of a ferris wheel, then a rotating windmill, palm trees and other colorful 3D animated objects.
Social media lit up with comments like “OMG they were drones” and “So we weren’t hallucinating!”
YouTuber JoanJetsetter wrote, “Insane surprise drone show at Coachella! Yes, the robots are here, and they are coming for us.”
Presented by HP, the Intel-powered drone light show first appeared at Coachella after indie pop band The xx finished its set, just before Radiohead took the stage. The drones flew again behind the main stage before Lady Gaga’s performance on Saturday.
“Coachella is two weekends full of different kinds of music, abstract art and the latest technology, making it the perfect event for drone light shows,” said Natalie Cheung, general manager of Intel drone light shows.
Intel designed the drones, animation and music, and worked with festival director Bill Fold and Golden Voice to prepare for the two weekends of Coachella. The new technology demonstration at Coachella was historic because it was the largest audience to witness a live performance of the Intel drone light show so far.
Like a swarm of synchronized fireflies, the Intel Shooting Star drones flash a wide variety of colors and brightness. The Intel drone technology was featured during Lady Gaga’s NFL Super Bowl halftime performance.
Drone Entertainment Takes Off
Since their debut in Germany in late 2015, the Intel drone lights shows have set two Guinness Book of World Record titles for the Most Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) airborne simultaneously: 100 then 500.
The drone light show has performed at Sydney, Australia’s 2016 Vivid Lights and Ideas festival, Coca Cola Mexico’s Caravan of Lights, as well as the 2016 Starbright Holiday show at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.
Nearly a year prior to the Coachella performance, the Intel drone light show flew over the neighboring desert city of Indio. It was the first time Intel was permitted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly 100 drones synchronously in U.S. airspace. It showed that safety regulations can allow for the use of multiple drones to entertain public audiences.
The FAA has authority over the use of airspace and categorizes Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or drones as actual aircraft. As a result, drone pilots must follow FAA airspace regulations just like any other aircraft pilot. A different subset of rules govern commercial use of drones, called Part 107, a waiver obtained by the Intel team.
“Based on several factors and proven safety mitigations we have in place, we are allowed to fly up to 400 feet above ground level, fly multiple drones per pilot and fly at night,” said Intel Shooting Star fleet pilot Clay Coleman.
To ensure safety, Coleman said he communicates regularly with the FAA, local law enforcement aviation units, and the local flying community. He said another key to managing safety is the drone system’s customizable, multi-layer geo-fence technology that automates where exactly each drone can and cannot fly.
Coachella planners worked with Intel to integrate the drone light show into the festival schedule. Test flghts at Indio helped the planning process but the team still faced last-minute challenges, including high winds. But, according to software engineer Tobi Gurdan, each time the drones perform, the team learns and improves.
“We came a long way since the Super Bowl show because our algorithms are more powerful and easy to use,” said Gurdan.
“At Coachella, the whole show is synchronized to music by the beat, and we included exploding spheres in sparkling colors. But rather than the lights fading out, they come to a halt and suddenly implode back again. Fireworks certainly can’t do that.”
One of the fascinating aspects of these lightshows is the perception of size and depth, said Gurdan.
“We designed geometric shapes like a 3D pyramid and a floating volumetric waveform,” he said. “The depth is emphasized by moving and rotating lights, giving the audience a reinforced sense of perspective.”
Intel Shooting Star drones each weigh about 280 grams or less than 10 ounces. They’re made of flexible plastic and foam, with no screws, and the propellers are covered by protective cages. Each drone is equipped with built-in LED lights that can create over 4 billion color combinations. The system can be done by a single operator controlling hundreds of drones.