Image courtesy Intel.

Swarms of Lighted Drones – The Next Generation of Fireworks?

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By: Tom Gardiner January 12, 2016

Sometimes it seems like we can’t make it through a single day without hearing something about drones.  Whether it’s a news story about the buzzing little buggers or someone in the neighborhood trying out their new toy, they’re pretty much everywhere.  With the tiny, unmanned vehicles becoming such a ubiquitous part of daily life, it’s not very often that we’re surprised by something in the world of drones.  This is one of those times, because swarms of lighted drones are surprisingly surprising.

It all started when the CEO of Intel, Brian Krzanich wondered what would happen if he asked his “Marketing Director of Perceptual Computing” (Yes, that’s a real job, apparently.), Anil Nanduri, what he’d do with an army of 100 drones at his command.  Krzanich, like any good tech nerd, wanted to see something cool and different done with the technology.  He must really trust Nanduri, because if I were given control of an army of drones I’d take over the world, or more likely, crash every damned one of them within 2 minutes.  But Nanduri is a much more benevolent spirit than I and he realized the perfect group of people to create something unique would be the Ars Electronica Futurelab in Austria.

What the Futurelab team came up with is beautiful and amazing.  And world record breaking, setting the Guinness World Record for most UAVs airborne simultaneously.  I’m guessing they’re implying it’s for the most drones under the control of a single entity or group since there’s probably thousands in the air at any given moment, especially after this past Christmas.

Here’s the finished product and it is very much worth a watch or three.  I’ve probably seen it 8-10 times already.

Outfitting the drones with a multi-colored lighting system and controlled by computers, the swarm of drones danced to a live orchestral performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in the early evening hours over Tornesch, Germany.  The Futurelab team dubbed the lighted drones “spaxels,” short for “space pixels.”  There were only 4 pilots controlling the entire swarm, but they were assisted by software that controlled the lights, allowed the drones to follow predetermined flight paths, and helped the drones move in unison to the music being played.

As you can see in the video, the display is really impressive for only 100 drones.  Yes, I said, “only 100 drones” like it’s not much, but hear me out.  When you think in terms of 3-dimensional shapes, 100 drones isn’t even enough to make a simple cube that’s only 5 drones on a side (5 high X 5 wide X 5 deep = 125 drones), but the team’s creativity made it seem like there were many more lights in the night sky.

The drones on their tiny launch pads just before takeoff. (Image courtesy Intel)

The drones on their tiny launch pads just before takeoff. (Image courtesy Intel)

This was also a great proof-of-concept for a viable option to traditional fireworks.  Ostensibly safer than fireworks, drones can be reused, don’t explode (at least not on purpose), and can perform a customized show without any extra or special materials.

Futurelab has a video about the making of the drone performance that’s as fascinating as the final show.

We’re probably still a few years away from large scale, commercial “spaxelworks” displays, but this record-breaking performance proves it can be done and it is gorgeous.

Read Intel’s post about the event here:  100 Dancing Drones Set World Record

Ars Electronica has a very detailed blog post on the event with lots of gorgeous still photographs here:  Drone 100: A World Record Featuring 100 Points

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Tom Gardiner