Y ou know drones are good at doing tricks, taking video, and delivering packages–but have you ever heard of them making art? Find out how a simple question inspired a whole new form of aerial expression.
Before Kacey Musgraves takes the stage at Intersect, she’ll be joined by a special guest. Or rather 500 of them. Country’s leading female voice will be accompanied by a fleet of Intel(R) Shooting StarTM drones carrying LED lights that will take to the sky in a drone light show choreographed to her music.
Since 2015, Intel has been pioneering a uniquely creative use for drones: as a choreographed airborne display that’s part mechanized dance, part light sculpture, part 3D animation, and nothing short of incredible.
Like many mind-blowing ideas, the Drone Light Show concept came from a simple question. “About five years ago we were having sort of a hallway chat,” recalls Natalie Cheung, Intel’s General Manager of Drone Light Shows, “and we asked, wouldn’t it be cool if we put a hundred drones up in the sky and created the Intel logo?”
A few months later, Cheung and a team of Intel engineers sent a fleet of 100 drones into the sky over Germany in formation to create Intel’s iconic logo and they got their answer: yes, it is in fact very cool.
“When we first saw it in the sky we said, oh wow, this is something that’s really different,” Cheung recalls. They knew right away that the demonstration was only scratching the surface of the idea’s potential. “This could be a new marketing opportunity, this could be storytelling in the sky. This could be digital fireworks. It’s really pixels in the sky that you can do whatever you want with.”
With a team that includes pilots and aviation experts with decades of experience, and animators who’ve worked on major video games and Hollywood blockbusters, the Intel Drone Light Show is capable of stunning feats: flashing animations across the sky, morphing fluidly between shapes, complex choreography like spheres spinning within spheres. They’ve celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission at the Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex by recreating animations reminiscent of the moon landing over the iconic Rocket Garden, and set a world record when they sent a snowboarder made from a thousand drones soaring over the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. (They’ll also be celebrating the fan-beloved sci-fi series The Expanse, which recently found a new home at Amazon, with a performance on Intersect’s second night that will reproduce some of the show’s visual elements.)
The Intel Drone Light Show was an envelope-pushing idea from the start, and in the years since, Cheung and her team have continued to push it further. They’ve expanded from flying 100 drones at a time to 500, and Intel is the current Guinness World Records holder with over 2,000 drones in the sky at one time. Additionally, the team developed software that allows the entire show to be flown by one pilot–the software can even pick which drones to use based on battery life, GPS, and other factors. When they first launched it took about 20 people to run the show. Now the entire Kacey Musgraves show can be handled by four to six people.
It's really pixels in the sky that you can do whatever you want with.
The custom made Intel(R) Shooting Star™ quadcopters that power the show have been upgraded as well. “It’s specifically created for light shows,” Cheung explains. “It’s probably not like the drones you’ve flown before.” There’s no camera, for instance, or any additional data capture sensors, which brings the weight of each Intel Shooting Star drone down to under 330 grams, or three quarters of a pound. The LED light each one carries is now capable of displaying 4 billion colors. “It does two things really well,” Cheung says of the Shooting Star. “It shines an LED in the sky really brightly, and it stays precisely in place.”
Intersect won’t be the Drone Light Show team’s first time collaborating with a major musical artist–they’ve performed at two Super Bowl halftime shows–but this one’s special for a couple of reasons. For one, they’re working directly with Kacey on the show’s choreography.
The performance also has a deeper purpose than simply wowing a crowd with a luminous blend of art and engineering. With the high-flying title UPLIFT, the show will blend the Intel Drone Light Show team’s skills with the music of Kacey Musgraves in order to pay tribute to women’s contributions to technology. It’s a fitting theme for a collaboration with country music’s most outspoken female star, and with a female-led team at the controls it’ll serve as a powerful example of just how stunning those contributions can be.
As far as the Drone Light Show has come already, it’s still very young technology, with plenty of room to grow. “This is something that we’re only scratching the surface on,” Cheung says.
Where it goes from here remains to be seen, but one thing for certain is that it’s worth catching in person. “Videos don’t do it justice,” Cheung says. “The photos don’t do it justice. There’s something really magical about being there”