Light. Music. Ideas. Vivid Sydney is a festival designed on these three principles, which is why it’s fitting that Intel’s Drone 100 project will make its first ever public debut at Sydney Harbour.
Sydney is no stranger to bright lights and technical achievements. The city’s New Year’s Eve fireworks, a world-class pyrotechnics display, have become a benchmark for celebrations in other major cities.
It’s this similar magical experience that Anil Nanduri, Intel’s general manager of unmanned aviation systems for its Perceptual Computing Group, hopes to conjure through the public debut of the Drone 100 at Vivid Sydney.
The world’s largest festival of its kind, Vivid Sydney is the ultimate showcase of creativity and technology, so it was fitting that this event was chosen to showcase the Drone 100 spectacle to a live audience. For five nights only, from 8 to 12 June, one hundred LED-laden drones will create mesmerising light patterns as they dance above Sydney Harbour to live music from the Sydney Youth Orchestra.
As a Major Partner of the Sydney Opera House, Intel will set up a VIP viewing area for this special event on the eastern side of the Opera House podium overlooking Farm Cove.
“We chose Sydney because having 100 drones soaring above the water, flying next to the iconic sails of the Sydney Opera House in synchronised formations would not only tick a number of new firsts for Drone 100, but more importantly it would visually be an incredibly breathtaking experience,” said Nanduri.
When Drones Become Art
While UAVs have been used in a range of applications across industries, few have explored their aesthetic value. “UAVs have usually been used for inspection or aerial photography,” said Nanduri. “But we think drones can also be used for something different; that is fun, exciting, and beautiful to watch.”
In 2014, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich saw an LED-lit drone created by a company called Ascending Technologies. Krzanich wanted Intel to level up, Nanduri recalls. “Brian said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do 100 of these? And wouldn’t it be cool if they formed the Intel logo?'”
The company formed a team to pursue a completely different use case for UAVs. Working with Ars Electronica Futurelab in Austria, the result was a display of 100 drones dancing to a live orchestra’s rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony near Hamburg, Germany last year. Intel invited Guinness World Records adjudicators to the private event and successfully flew the inaugural Drone 100 show, sealing the record for most UAVs airborne simultaneously. It was not just a technical endeavor, but an artistic achievement.
Working with 100 drones in the air at a time is already a technical challenge. All 100 drones will be controlled by one master pilot using technology powered by Intel laptops. In addition, having to choreograph a performance for that number of UAVs requires both technological and artistic mastery. “This is a differentiator in the drone industry,” noted Nanduri. “It can change the industry completely.”
Ready to Launch in Sydney
Having enchanted a small group of event attendees in Germany last year, followed by a similar closed viewing in Palm Springs in the US, the upcoming show at Vivid Sydney will be Drone 100’s international debut for a public audience. This location comes with new challenges. In Germany, the drones launched off from an airport field, which gave the performance a stable surface for take-off and landing as well as provided a safe perimeter from the audience. This time, the drones will be launched from a barge.
Make that two barges. The team had to ‘stitch’ two barges together to create a space big enough to launch and land 100 drones, as well as accommodate the crew and equipment.
Natalie Cheung, Intel’s product manager for unmanned aerial vehicles was in charge of the crew assessing whether flying Drone 100 over water would be feasible in the first place.
“The drones are taking off from metal barges, so we have to test the signal of the drones and make sure they’re well calibrated and there are no interference issues,” Cheung explained.
The team also had to work through regulatory hurdles. “The big thing for us was that we wanted to fly right by the Sydney Opera House, and there are regulations with CASA (the Civil Aviation Safety Authority) on where drones can and cannot fly,” Cheung said.
“We’ve been working closely with the Sydney Opera House and CASA over the last few months to make this happen and through that process we came up with the idea of having a barge as the launching and landing pad for the drones. So this is our first time ever flying from a barge.”
Since no one has launched 100 drones at the one time in Australia before, let alone above water from a barge, Intel, the Sydney Opera House, and CASA had to work out the regulatory requirements, including ensuring an 80m (262 feet) radius from the public, obtaining aviation clearance to fly up to 400 feet at the site for seven days leading up to the event and authorisation to fly at night.
“Working with the Sydney Opera House and CASA has been amazing,” Cheung said. “Both were instrumental in the process. CASA really wanted to be a part of the future of drones and that’s why it has given us the exemption to let us fly Drone 100 next to one of the world’s most recognized structures.”
The final challenge is an artistic one. With audience members able to view the performance from different angles, including from the prime vantage point of the eastern side of the Sydney Opera House, the team had to choreograph the drones in 3D animations that everyone can enjoy.
“Plus we’re at the mercy of the weather and we have no control over that. It’s humbling to know all this work can be undone by nature,” said Cheung. “We have to constantly check wind conditions to make sure we can fly in them. We never want to cancel, but we need to make sure this is a safe event.”
A New Light
The Drone 100 performance at Vivid Sydney marks the beginning of a new era for UAVs. Drones are already being recognised for their multiple uses, but Intel’s event at Vivid will show these amazing machines in a new light.
“We definitely want to take Drone 100 to more public places, and show other people what we can do with this technology outside of inspection and surveillance. We believe Drone 100 can help set the drone industry on a different path.”
*Intel is a Major Partner of the Sydney Opera House