Disney World’s nightly fireworks show might soon have some competition in the form of hundreds of swirling, whirling LED-lit drones. They flash, fall and flock in unison and are all controlled by one person.
I saw them and they were, for lack of a better phrase, absolutely amazing.
The drones come from Intel. The electronics giant turned to Disney to showcase its next generation drones. And these drones can do things fireworks cannot. Flying as a fleet, these Intel drones can paint the sky with three-dimensional images that twist and turn and come to life.
The drones are called the Shooting Star and 300 are will take the sky above a Disney World lake later today to put on an aerial holiday show. Candy canes will dance, soldiers will march, and everyone will be merry.
This is the latest project in Intel’s quest to take drones from individuals to fleets. This is Ender’s Game brought to life. Just like in Orson Scott Card’s book, one person commands the group, sending instructions and monitoring the drones’ health. And Intel says its limitless in its scale, able to control as many drones as imaginable.
Intel envisions a future where drones fly in fleets to accomplish tasks. The same software that Intel and Disney are using to put on a colorful aerial show could be used in search and rescue operations or inspecting equipment and goods. Imagine a squadron of several drones using scanning software — like Intel’s RealSense platform — to inspect an airplane or water tower. Or a force of these drones creating a floating LED screen.
Intel worked with Disney employees to design and produce the show at Disney World. It took five months to go from concept to the show, but only three weeks to design the aerial images thanks to the proprietary Intel software that does most of the heavy lifting.
The star of the show isn’t the drones; it’s the software. Built in-house at Intel, a series of programs gives one pilot control over a nearly limitless amount of drones. It’s built to scale, I’m told, and capable of controlling a force of more than 10,000 drones.
The software calculates what’s needed to reproduce an image with drones. Input an image, say the TechCrunch logo, and the software will determine how many drones are needed to recreate the green TC. Then input another image. This time the image might take fewer drones so the software will move some drones out of the main cloud and switch off their LED lights, essentially making them disappear into the sky. In between the two images, the software devises movement paths that eliminate collisions. The drones themselves do not have collision detection. The software does that for the drones.
The Federal Aviation Administration recently gave Disney the go ahead to use aerial drones at night in its parks. This approval is good through the year 2020.
The Shooting Star drones are basic. During the show the drones can fly within 1.5 meters of each other at a speed of 3 meters per second in winds up to 8 meters per second. They have a range of about 1.5 kilometers and a flight time of 20-22 minutes. They’re all controlled from a single radio antenna located next to the pilot. The drones do not communicate with each other.
The Shooting Star drone has a bright LED installed under the main housing. Encased in a plastic dome about the size of baseball, this LED is what allows the drones to put on a show.
Sadly I cannot show the most impressive part of the whole operation: 600 drones sitting in waiting on their launchpads. Intel didn’t want to talk about these pads so I know little outside of what I saw and I saw very little.
Several drones sit an inch apart on each launchpad. The pads appear to be multi-use, but at least one function is to charge the drones. The Shooting Star drones rest in divots designed to cup the round LED housing, which also features the charging contacts for the drones. Sit the drones in these little holes and they’re charging until they’re directed to take off.