The Wonder Woman Light Show, and the Vast Creative Potential of Light Show Drones: An Interview with Anil Nanduri, Head of Intel’s Drone Group
BY Zacc Dukowitz18 September 2017
Anil Nanduri is Vice President in the New Technology Group and General Manager of the Drone Group at Intel. He’s also one of the most intelligent, and nicest, people we’ve had the pleasure of speaking with.
Just after InterDrone we sat down to pick Anil’s brain about his work at Intel, where things are headed with their Shooting Star light show drones, and Intel’s vision for A.I. and autonomous surveying.
Our conversation lasted so long that we decided to break the interview into two parts. Part 1, published here, covers Intel’s Drone Group in general and the Shooting Star light show drones, and Part 2 will dive into what Intel is doing with A.I. and the commercial sector, including details about the Falcon 8+ and autonomous surveys.
Just a few days ago Intel’s Shooting Star drones made big headlines for a light show celebrating the Blu-ray release of Wonder Woman—check out the video below to get a quick recap:
UAV Coach: Describe what Intel does in one short sentence.
Anil Nanduri: If it’s smart and connected, Intel has a solution to drive it.
UAV Coach: You’re in charge of Intel’s UAV segment. Can you tell us what that means on a daily basis?
Anil Nanduri: The work we do is to lay out the strategy for the drone group—the roadmap, the business goals, all of it.
In addition, we also make sure we’re working with our customers and expanding the usage of drones in the ecosystem, and expanding different kinds of use cases, including where and how drone light shows are performed.
So our work encompasses all aspects of drones at Intel—commercial, light shows, as well as some ecosystem-enabling that we do with the Intel Aero platform for developers.
UAV Coach: From Coachella, to Lady Gaga, to Disneyland, Intel’s Shooting Star drones have been a huge hit this year. What do you see coming next for the Shooting Star drones?
Anil Nanduri: One thing to mention is that last night we flew at the Wonder Woman Blu-ray launch party at Dodger Stadium in L.A.
— Gal Gadot (@GalGadot) September 15, 2017
Big picture, the light show drones still have a lot of potential for growth. This project started with a hallway discussion, and it was really just about making something that had never been done before into a reality.
Usually we talk about drones and think, “Hey, we need to do a huge a construction survey. Here’s how surveying was done before, and here’s how drones can make it cheaper and safer.” So it’s like cheaper, safer, faster, right? It’s about making an operational improvement to see how much more data you can get in a shorter period of time, with a lower cost, and the way forward there is very clear.
But with the Shooting Star drones it’s more like, “Here’s a new technology—something that’s never been done before.” So what can we do with it? How can we redefine entertainment in the sky?
So when you start thinking about storytelling with the sky as your canvas—essentially seeing the sky as one huge screen for light shows—things get really exciting. We can create messages, we can create logos. What else can we do?
UAV Coach: Can you explain how piloting the swarm of light show drones actually works, so that one or two pilots on the ground can control 500 or more drones?
Anil Nanduri: The two key aspects that make the light show drones work are creativity and logistics.
On the creative side, you have people using animation tools and thinking about what the show should look like to make it spectacular and beautiful.
On the logistical side, you have people thinking about how to actually get all these drones flying in formation and working as a single unit. This is about GPS and the language of positioning and speed, and everything that’s required so that the drones are always in sync with one another.
You have to be able to blend these two aspects for the light show to work.
We do this blending in software. You can literally do the complete animation and the simulation of the drone flight in software, end to end. Once you’ve simulated it, you can program the drones and charge them all at the system level. Technically, you cannot fly 300 or 500 drones by programming them one by one—it has to be designed and executed at a system level.
Intel’s Light Show at Coachella This Year
So as a user, there’s two steps to the process of creating a light show with these drones.
There’s the creative side, which depends on what kind of storytelling you want to do, and requires a creative process, which is no different from the work required to do animation. Depending on the complexity of the story and animation, the creative thinking affects the variability of it and what specifically you need the drones to do to tell your story.
We have our own creative engineers who help with that process, and who work with our customers to execute their vision.
What’s starting to evolve over the last year and a half since we’ve been doing this is that the creative people are now able to visualize and think, “Okay, now let’s show the audience that the sky is three dimensional. Which means we have a volumetric display, not a two dimensional display. Which is very exciting.”
When the artists understand what the technology allows them to do, their creative energy comes out. And you can see the maturity of this process in the Wonder Woman show we just put on.
And as we go forward you’re going to see the evolution of storytelling with these light shows, with people looking at how they mix art and lighting. You’re going to see many, many different variations.
So, that’s the first step.
The second step is about scale. Our whole system is designed for scale and size, because our goal is to bring these light shows to everyone.
One aspect of scaling is operational. We’re maturing the technology, and we’ll be working with partners who can help us operationalize everything. We believe that every small town should be able to experience its own light show. That’s our vision.
This means the operators have to be proficient. Even if the pilot is primarily just pressing a button on the computer, a real, deep knowledge of drones is incredibly critical for the pilot to make sure he’s equipped to manage any situation that might arise—conditions may change, GPS conditions may be different. Intricate knowledge of aviation is critical, even though the operational side of it is as simple as letting the computer manage it.
UAV Coach: That’s an exciting future that you’re describing, where drone light shows won’t be just in huge venues, but will be available in smaller towns and other locations. So how do we get there?
Anil Nanduri: That’s the question, right? And it’s going to be a journey.
Of course, there’s always a cost with new technology to render specific or broader options. But you know, that’s the future we are striving for and that’s the vision we have.
Is it feasible? Yes! It’s definitely feasible—it’s just a question of doing the work.
UAV Coach: Ehang claims to have beaten Intel for the Guinness World Record for “Most Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) airborne simultaneously” with 1,000 drones back in February. Are you hungry to take that record back? Is that on your radar or is that not really a priority right now?
Anil Nanduri: I don’t think Ehang actually has an official Guinness World Record, although I know there was press around their flight with 1,000 drones last spring.
But either way, there’s two ways to look at it. If we wanted to fly 1,000 drones, we could do that right now in three days, including test runs, and operationalize the whole thing seamlessly.
Intel’s Shooting Star Drones Break the Guinness World Record in 2016
The way we generally operate for one of these light shows is that on the first day we do setup, and we’re actually ready to fly the first night. But just to make sure everything works, we usually do a full dress rehearsal the second night, and then have the actual show on the third night.
So we have the technology now that allows the Shooting Star shows to be a scalable solution. If we wanted to add more drones we certainly could, but our main concern is about what will make for the best show, and the best visual experience.
If you look at it from a show perspective, creating the best show depends on questions like, Where is the audience? How close is the audience to the drones? And what else is nearby? In many scenarios, 100 drones will give you a better visual experience—and make for better storytelling—than 300.
But sometimes you need 300 because of the distance—these are the kinds of things I like to think of first, before considering just the sheer number of drones we’re putting into the sky.
Records don’t mean much to me if I’m not able to get the worldwide audience to be able to experience it.
Note: According to the Guinness World Records website, Intel does still hold the world record for “Most Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) airborne simultaneously.” We have an inquiry out to Guinness to provide clarity about Ehang’s claim to the record, and will report further as more information comes in.