Natalie Cheung quickly rose from MIT engineering grad to Intel general manager of a drone innovation team that’s revolutionizing nighttime entertainment at outdoor concerts, theme parks and city festivals around the world.
When Natalie Cheung’s team flew 100 light-equipped Intel Shooting Star drones and lit up the night sky outside Hamburg, Germany in November 2015, it set a Guinness World Record for most unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) airborne simultaneously.
In 2018, her team set a new record in Las Vegas by flying 110 Intel Shooting Star Mini drones, marking the largest fleet of drones flown simultaneously indoors, all controlled by a single computer inside.
“There’s nothing like the thrill of owning and flying a drone, of seeing it rise into the sky, but having 100, 300 or 500 in the air at one time just blows my mind,” said Cheung, the general manager of the drone light show business, which is part of Intel’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Group.
For outdoor light shows, her team uses a fleet of lightweight, LED-equipped Intel Shooting Star drones, programmed to create moving 3D shapes that illuminate the sky with as many as 4 billion different color combinations.
“Watching them light up and animate the sky is one thing, but to think that they’re all being controlled by one computer with just one pilot still amazes me,” Cheung said.
Consisting of software engineers, hardware engineers, animators, drone technicians and certified drone pilots, the drone team is pioneering a new kind of night sky entertainment experience for huge cultural events around the world. They designed unique light shows for the 2017 NFL Super Bowl Half-Time show, Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, and Australia’s Vivid Light Festival, to name a few.
She recently created a special “Wonder Woman” light show for Warner Bros. and Ultra Productions to celebrate the movie’s home entertainment release during an event in Los Angeles. Cheung led an all-female operations team to put on the drone light show, which was accompanied by a live performance with electric cellist Tina Guo.
“The drones are so incredible,” said Patty Jenkins, director of “Wonder Woman.”
“Watching it, you feel like this is the future.”
Cheung is supercharged and fast moving. Often she feels caught in a whirlwind of meetings that take her around the world, but increasingly there are more moments when time almost stops and she sees the stars align. That’s what happened when her team connected with Coachella, the California desert music festival. It was on her wish list right from the start.
“Coachella is just south of where I live and work,” she said. “I knew from the time we flew the first 100 drones, that the light show would add another dimension to the music festivals. The first festival that came to mind was obviously Coachella — it’s the one that you always hear about. We specifically designed the show for Coachella, so there was the iconic Ferris wheel that has always been at the festival and palm trees because it’s in Palm Springs.”
There are many moving parts and lots of complexity that has to work together perfectly to pull off a drone light show.
“You always learn about new challenges with the different environments.”
Career Path Lifts Off
After graduating from MIT with a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science, Cheung was recruited by Intel and set on the rotation program that led her to work with the two most recent Intel CEOs before joining the UAV group.
“Drones offered me an exciting opportunity to apply my fascination with how things work,” she said.
Born out of a hallway conversation with Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, the idea for a drone light show quickly evolved into a growing business. Soon after, Cheung took the helm.
“I’m focused on scaling this so that everyone can see a drone light show.”
She constantly brainstorms with her team. How can light shows be used in commercials or what she calls “360-degree branding in the sky”?
“I’m so passionate about what I’m doing that it doesn’t seem like work. It’s so fun being onsite, meeting people then seeing their amazement as they experience their first drone light show.”
The more she works with drones, the more her mind races with ideas for how the technology can help different aspects of daily life, from finding stranded hikers to creating unforgettable weddings.
“Our team is really just scratching the surface of what drone technology can do,” Cheung said.
Advancements in drone technology is allowing for better, safer flight automation, which is also making the drone light show system easier to set up and operate. Cheung said learning through operations and innovating on designs could lead to new breakthroughs that make drones even more useful, beyond light shows.
“Search and rescue missions today rely on one pilot flying one drone. When one pilot can fly multiple drones, you can cover a lot more ground faster. In the future, all that data they collect can be sent to the cloud and analyzed to better search for a lost hiker.”
She has become a notable influencer in the drone industry. Drone 360 Magazine named her one of the top “2017 Women to Watch in UAS.” The magazine called the drone light shows “a promising business opportunity for Intel. The challenges of creating a product that can be used commercially are daunting — but the payoff could potentially put fireworks out of business.”
Walk, Run, Fly into the Future
Cheung got her first drone one day while chasing her curiosity on Kickstarter. She saw a build-it-yourself drone kit and decided to invest.
“I enjoyed building it, but almost immediately, I crashed it.”
Since then, her personal drone fleet at home has grown to include the Yuneec Typhoon H with Intel RealSense technology and the Yuneec Typhoon 4K, which captures ultra-high definition aerial footage with a camera that rotates 360 degrees.
She’s even used a drone to inspect the gutters around her home.
“It certainly beat getting out the ladder and climbing up to see if they needed cleaning,” she said.
She thinks more couples will use drones to capture their wedding.
“You know when you get that whole party shot and the photographer is standing on a stool trying to get everyone in the photo? With a drone, it’s so much easier. You can get the right perspective.”
How about “Jack and Jill Together Forever” lighting up the night sky?
“I can’t wait for someone to ask us to do a drone light show or digital firework show for a wedding.”
Inspiring Next Generation Leaders
As an executive who rose quickly into a leadership position, Cheung encourages young women to chase their passion. Find interesting topics and dive in fully with eyes and mind wide open.
“The internet is such a great place for learning,” she said. “You can Google almost anything to find how the technology behind it works.”
She said it’s important to seek guidance and inspiration from a great mentor, role model or positive influence. She suggests finding them or gathering inspiration at networking events or industry conferences.
“Find women who have experience that interests you, and ask them to share stories about their career path.”
Avoid being timid or complacent. She learned to be assertive when classmates named her notetaker or relegated her to jobs that were best handled by someone with small fingers.
“Challenging preconceived notions and let people know where you’re coming from,” she said. “Make sure they understand how demeaning comments can make someone a little bit uneasy.”
Ultimately, the goal is to work as a team to build a better world through using technology and human ingenuity. For Cheung, it means taking drone capabilities to new heights.
“I see a huge opportunity here,” she said. “Just look at how drone technology has become a way of life for so many people already. We’ve only just begun.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Jan. 16, 2018. Learn more about Intel drone technology innovation.