News about the drone light show that Intel put on at the Super Bowl this year was tough to miss. Articles such as The Secret Behind Those Super Bowl Half-Time Show Drones as well as Intel Flew 300 Drones in Sync to Create an Epic Light Show at the Super Bowl detailed exactly how Intel® Shooting Star™ drones were able to create massive images that lit up the sky, and explained exactly how this was able to happen from a technical and legal perspective.
While it was impressive to learn about details like the four billion color combinations that the drones were capable of creating and how a single operator could control the entire swarm, it didn’t make major waves in the commercial space. After all, this kind of application is something that’s definitely interesting, but not something that appears especially relevant for commercial operators. What possible use could a utility or search and rescue professional have with a drone that can flash a bunch of lights?
I found out that answer and more after connecting with Natalie Cheung from Intel, who is focused on growing the light show business for Intel. I went into the conversation not knowing if there would be much to focus on from a commercial perspective, but Natalie quickly explained the many reasons commercial drone operators should be interested in and looking at this technology. We also discuss the development of dynamic capabilities for these drone fleets, what kind of specific commercial opportunities might be created, other capabilities that these drones might soon be able to employ and plenty more.
Jeremiah Karpowicz: How have things changed for you since we last caught up at the Commercial UAV Expo?
Natalie Cheung: At Commercial UAV we talked about all the different commercial products we were focused on. At the time, I was the marketing director for the drone team, and because it was a commercial event, I was focused more on the Intel Falcon 8+ and the MAVinci Sirius Pro. I’ve always been working on light shows though. It was something I started 18 or 19 months ago. Since then, I’ve transitioned to become fully focused on light shows and growing that as a business. I’m very focused on how we can expand the innovations with these light shows.
What does that expansion look like? Are you focused on seeing that growth happen in terms of entertainment or in terms of potential commercial applications?
Let me start out by telling you why we’re doing drone light shows, and then we can walk through the process.
The reason we’re doing these light shows is to further innovate on technology for drones. We started doing light shows because we see the concept of multiple drones controlled by one pilot or PC being useful in other categories. Imagine if you’re using a drone to find a lost hiker. Having one drone out there looking for that person is good, but having multiple drones is even better. It’s not just about the extra hardware though. Having all of that essential data controlled by one computer is critical because it simplifies what could otherwise be a long and difficult process.
Think of that same concept in a different sector. Having multiple drones inspect one bridge or cell tower makes the entire process faster and more efficient. That kind of workflow also makes it easier to continue operations throughout the day. That’s the main reason we’re innovating in this space and why we’re focused on showcasing this multiple drones per pilot technology.
It’s not the only reason though, because we’re also very interested in changing the perceptions some people have developed around the technology in a practical sense. Many people simply think of a drone as a flying camera, but we want to show people that using a drone doesn’t just mean having a camera. Using a drone can mean that drone carries a payload like an LED, or something else entirely.
So you’re trying to get people think differently about UAV technology itself, aren’t you?
We really want to change the definition of “drone” and how drones can be seen and how the technology can be used in other industries. Until we started doing this, putting an LED on a drone without a camera and purposefully building a drone for this kind of show had never been done. Our Shooting Star drones are purposefully built for a light show. It’s built with safety and endurance in mind, where it’s only purpose it to fly low, in precision, and to synch the lights. There’s no camera, and the LED build is configured with the drone to display different levels of brightness. It has 4 billion color combinations, with red, green, blue and white. It’s super lightweight and safe, and that’s the purpose behind the construction of this drone.
The Intel portfolio has a number of different drones built for different industries, and we want people in all of those industries to think about how the technology can meet their needs, whatever they happen to be.
Have you seen those perceptions being to change?
Yes, but what’s really exciting is to see how they expand to audiences that aren’t focused on the drone industry. When we were at Disney Springs at Walt Disney World Resort producing “Starbright Holidays – an Intel collaboration,” I think the most memorable part was hearing a child refer to the drones as “light fairies”. We never envisioned touching people like that with a drone.
At the Super Bowl, there were over 110 million different viewers, and I’m sure that no one had ever seen drones fly like that. And some people didn’t even believe it was drones/ They thought it was lasers or something else. So it really does open up people’s minds around how that definition of the technology can be expanded.
My goal is to expand these light shows everywhere, so people can see how interesting and different these light show can be and how they can paint different pictures in the sky by using a full three dimensional canvas.
Rather than changing perceptions, this kind of usage might very well define the creation of enterprise fleets. Can you talk a little bit about how the drone light show fleets operate?
A lot of people assume that our fleet of drones can talk to each other, and that’s a bit of a misconception. Our drones are able to talk back to our system. The way path/animation of the drone is preprogrammed. The colors and where it will go is already preprogrammed prior to flight. So in that sense we have more control, and we have more autonomy, because we understand where it will go during the flight. We press a button and they all launch and perform the show.
When we talk about commercial fleets there’s a slight difference, because commercial applications will in most cases need to be a bit more complicated. It’s an important difference to say it’s not dynamic at this point. It’s completely controlled and we understand within each timeframe of what’s going to happen.
Is that dynamic control being developed?
I think that’s where a lot of the industry wants to go. It’s something that everyone’s looking at, and it’s a question of at what touch point will this be used and where will it be used effectively.
That’s part of the reason it’s been such a great experience with these light shows. We’re creating this usage and system that is going to be relevant in the present as well as the future as the technology changes and develops.
That ties back into changing people’s perceptions, because even though we know synchronized drones can be used for things like emergency response, these fleets can be used to do something like create a floating LED screen, can’t they? Are those kind of innovative solutions something you’re actively looking at?
If you think about the type of work that we’re doing, you’re basically putting a controlled flying light in the sky. Once that’s up there, you can create and do different things with it. You can create that LED screen like you mentioned, but it really depends on what the artist or operator wants to do with it. And that absolutely ties back into how operators’ perceptions can and are changing.
We started off with 100 drones in the sky, where we could do things like create the Intel logo, but it was just an outline of it. With 500, we could create a crystal clear logo, dynamically sampled and all the drones were spread out to fill out the whole Intel logo. That’s just a simple example of the innovation we’re working on, and the developments we’re hoping to enable.
Speaking of innovations, just before we connected I took a look at the display from Coachella. Seems like these artists are already looking to push past what was achieved at the Super Bowl, doesn’t it?
I’ll be honest: the Super Bowl was really a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I don’t know what could beat that. But we’re always looking at different ways to expand and show drone light shows to different audiences.
Coachella is one of the largest music festivals in the world and this was just such a great opportunity to reach a whole different type of audience. It was an audience that had never really sought to integrate music, art and drones to together to create a very different experience. It was all about the music being synched up to the lights precisely so that it could create different beats.
In the Coachella video, we made it very in tune with Coachella itself. We had the palm trees and wind turbines to represent Palm Springs, and then we had the iconic Ferris wheel that Coachella is known for. We really want to tailor these shows to each audience and each group. We really thought about what kind of music to put in there, how the lights should work, and how to make it appeal to that audience.
We want to get this technology in front of people who have never seen these shows or even flown a drone. We want to let that influence how they view and think of the technology. We want to expand people’s knowledge of what drones can do.
What kind of technical expansion are you focused on with this technology? How will that be applicable to commercial enterprise operators?
We’re learning a lot through the drone light shows. One prime example of that has been going from Drone 100 to the Intel Shooting Star fleet. We’ve learned how to make everything smaller and efficient. Having four or five people on site now versus the 16-20 we had before is a good example of that. Also, we’ve reduced the amount of times we’ll have to be on site and making the animation cycle more efficient by using algorithms instead of manually plotting each drone in the sky.
Those are just a few of the key learning’s we have in going from 100 to a whole fleet. We’re still learning a lot about what we can improvise and also what sort of technical innovations we can integrate into our fleet for the next version.
What has you excited about the future of these drone light shows in 2017 and beyond?
My focus is around making drone light shows as commonplace as extravagant fireworks, and how we can get there. That’s something my whole team is looking at in terms of how we can branch out where drone light shows go and make it as easy to do as fireworks, but still maintain the green and safety aspect.
I’m really excited about giving more people to see these light shows live this year though. You really do have to see them live. The videos are great, but we’ve noticed that being there and seeing these really changes how people perceive drones and helps with showcasing how else the technology can be used in the commercial space.