Lights dancing in space

Orchestrating 100 drones for a 3D choreography. Credit: Intel and Ars Electronica FutureLab

Back in 2010 researchers at MIT Senseable City Lab initiated a project to create flying pixels. Helicopters would fly like a flock each one carrying a light. They would have been controlled by an orchestrator (a computer) resulting in a 3D screen hovering in space.

It was a conceptual work that resulted in a prototype demonstrating the idea, rather than its feasibility. The task of keeping micro helicopter in flight in a controlled formation was too expensive given the technology available six years ago.

Fast forward to CES 2016. 

Intel presented a joint project with Ars Electronica Future Lab that created a 3D light show using 100 dancing drones (see the video clip).

In 6 years technology has advanced to the point of transforming an idea into reality at an (almost) affordable cost.

Each of the hundred drones has been equipped with a set of four lights that can change colour and can be controlled by a computer, hence creating flying lights in space (spaxels as they called them).

The first demonstration took place at an airport near Hamburg where the drones created a choreography to augment with light the performance of an orchestra (watch the video clip). A second demo took place "inside" the US Capitol with the aim of demonstrating that in spite of the complexity drones can be safely controlled.

Beyond the artistic value and the "wow" effect, I am amazed by the progress of technology. The software controlling the flock is both simple and complex, and the overall resulting behaviour looks like it has a sparkle of intelligence.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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