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Winter Olympics 2018: Inside the Opening Ceremonies Drone Show

The opening ceremony of any Olympics provides pageantry at a global scale, a celebration that, at its best, can create moments every bit as indelible as the games themselves. For the Pyeongchang Games, those watching the curtain-raiser at home also witnessed a sight never seen before: a record-setting 1,218 drones joined in a mechanical murmuration.

Drone shows like the one on display at the Pyeongchang Games have taken place before; you may remember the drone army that flanked Lady Gaga at last year’s Super Bowl. But the burst of drones that filled the sky Friday night—or early morning, depending on where in the world you watched—comprised four times as many fliers. Without hyperbole, there’s really never been anything like it.

Shooting Stars

As at the Super Bowl, the Pyeongchang drone show comes compliments of Intel’s Shooting Star platform, which enables a legion of foot-long, eight ounce, plastic and foam quadcopters to fly in sync, swooping and swirling along an animator’s prescribed path.

“It’s in essence technology meeting art,” says Anil Nanduri, general manager of Intel’s drone group.

Intel’s Shooting Star drones are about a foot-long, weigh eight ounces, and can fly in formation for up to 20 minutes.|||

Also like the Super Bowl, the opening ceremony production you’ll see on your TV—or streaming device—was prerecorded. That’s less of a cheat than an insurance policy; tiny drones can only handle so much abuse, and Pyeongchang is a cold and windy city.

Intel had planned to produce a live version of the show for the Pyeongchang opening ceremony crowd, but had to scrap it at the last minute due to what the company describes as “impromptu logistical changes.” Television audiences, though, were always only going to see the prerecorded version of the record-setting aerial spectacle. And the Intel plans to lean into live shows throughout the week, with a separate, 300-drone act expected to take off nightly for the medal ceremonies.

In previous outings, the drone fleet has taken forms like a waving American flag backing Gaga, or a twirling Christmas tree at Disney’s Starbright Holidays. The Pyeongchang production, as you might expect, includes more Olympic-themed animations, like a gyrating snowboarder and those iconic interlocking rings, all made possible by careful coding, and the four billion color combinations enabled by onboard LEDs. (If you missed the livestream, you can catch the whole thing on the NBC broadcast Friday night.)

“In order to create a real and lifelike version of the snowboarder with more than 1,200 drones, our animation team used a photo of a real snowboarder in action to get the perfect outline and shape in the sky,” says Natalie Cheung, Intel’s general manager of drone light shows.

As it turns out, bring 1,218 of those drones into harmony doesn’t present much more of a logistical challenge than 300, thanks to how the Shooting Star platform works. After animators draw up the show using 3-D design software, each individual drone gets assigned to act as a kind of aerial pixel, filling in the 3-D image against the night sky.

And while more drones does provide a broader canvas, it perhaps more importantly affords a better sense of depth.

“What you have is a complete three-dimensional viewing space, so you can create lots of interesting effects and transformations when you use that full capability,” says Nanduri. “It’s aways easy to fly more drones for an animation and increase the perspective.”

With the animation in place, each drone operates independently, communicating with a central computer rather than any of the drones around it. Just before takeoff, that computer also decides which drone plays what role, based on the battery levels and GPS strength of each member of the fleet.

The drones can typically fly for a little under 20 minutes, given the limitations of current lithium-ion battery technology. They also generally launch at a bit of a distance from the actual performance area, cutting showtime even tighter. But those handicaps apply equally to any drone show. Pyeongchang presented unique challenges all its own.

Making It Work

As the opening ceremonies live snafu underscores, getting these drones capable of flying in extreme conditions involves some fine-tuning of a Shooting Star drone design that has otherwise remained fairly consistent over the last two years.

Intel

“When you have these multi-rotors, you’re spinning these blades, it’s all about how much lift and thrust they can get,” says Nanduri. “You have blades spinning in different directions, and it’s self-balancing. When you have high winds, you basically have to counter that, especially depending on the direction of the wind. You need more power.”

Intel didn’t physically change the shape of the Shooting Star propellers. But after simulating various wind scenarios, the team did tweak the design of the drones’ rotor cages for a tolerance boost to help keep the craft stable in windier conditions.

As for the cold, that impacts not so much the drones themselves, but the batteries that charge them. Temperatures on site will dip as low as 11 degrees Fahrenheit overnight, topping out at just above freezing.

‘It’s aways easy to fly more drones for an animation and increase the perspective.’

Anil Nanduri, Intel

“Lithium-ion batteries and cold don’t really go together,” says Nanduri. To that end, the Intel team tested Shooting Star performance in Finland to make sure the drones still flew as expected—and for the length of time required for the Olympic shows. But more importantly, they fine-tuned their storage systems to limit any potential damage that a deep freeze might cause. They’ll also have weather monitoring and air traffic stations on-site to make the final call.

Eventually, Intel has ambitions for its drone squad to graduate from performers to professionals. A fleet of fully programmable quadcopters has compelling implications for, say, search and rescue operations. Unlocking that potential would require a regulatory overhaul, though, one that doesn’t seem likely in the immediate term.

For now, however, light show spectaculars seem like a fine way for Shooting Star drones to earn their keep. Especially now that they’ve had their moment at the biggest show on earth.

Olympic Fever

This story has been updated to reflect that Intel pulled the live version of its opening ceremonies drone show.


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