Over the last few months, unmanned flying vehicles (commonly referred to as drones) have been a hot topic in the news. In politics, the Obama administration has been highly criticized about using them as a United States defense strategy with very little regulation or oversight.
Meanwhile, Amazon made headlines a few months ago when they revealed on 60 Minutes that they were testing a unmanned delivery system with small packages that could go short distances from an Amazon warehouse.
In the entertainment world, Cirque Du Soliel recently released a video just a few days ago where drones dance around a workshop in time to music. It’s really incredible.
And in theme parks, Disney recently made headlines due to a patent filing where they could potentially use drones for performances like shows or parades.
However, most people don’t realize that drones are hardly new and have been used for entertainment purposes for years. I recently got the chance to speak with John Barker of Airstage.biz, which has been creating these incredible machines for 15 years including a few theme park projects. Enjoy the interview!
How did Airstage start? What was the catalyst for starting the business?
Airstage started 15 years ago in Stuttgart Germany when our CEO Rainer Mugrauer – who is a qualified aircraft engineer and a very keen model aircraft enthusiast – was asked if he could build a radio-controlled Zeppelin (Airship) for indoor use at a local expo. At that time he had already created the first slow flying radio controlled model aircraft and was widely known as the “Godfather of Indoor Flying”.
This radio controlled Airship was a huge success and he was inundated with requests to build further aerial promotion objects that could safely be flown in an enclosed environment. It was at this time that the company gradually transitioned from a one man show to a highly skilled team of ultralight aircraft specialists and technicians.
Before long the automobile branch heard of these creations and over the following years we were commissioned to create numerous 1:1 scale radio controlled flying models of cars for BMW, VW, GM, Fiat, Audi, Ford, and others. These flying cars were in every way identical to the original – except that they would slowly lift off from their position and majestically fly over the heads of the audience below! Airstage constructed and piloted over 60 different car models and flew them at all major car shows and events around the world, bringing us the International breakthrough.
In the meantime we have constructed and flown radio controlled models of a wide range of objects such as a backhoe loader, pressure cleaning machines, motorbikes, helicopters, oversized mobile phones, kitchen appliances, sport balls, fish and sea horses, pixel figures, yellow submarines for London Olympics, red balloon for Sochi Olympics – and continue to do so to this day!
Recently the entertainment branch has also “discovered” Airstage and we are becoming more involved in show productions for Opening Ceremonies, Concerts, Arena Shows, Theaters, TV productions and more recently, Theme Parks.
Airstage remain to date the only company in the world that can construct and pilot such radio controlled ultra light models in virtually any shape or size, so we look forward to continually expanding whilst adding new fields of business.
After 15 years our flying objects and technology continue to be “Made in Germany”.
Can you talk a little about the technology and how it works?
Our technology is based on the lighter-than-air principle. Inside the outer form of the ultralight model (which can be rigid, non-rigid or hybrid depending on the design requirements and situation) we custom-make an interior gas sleeve filled with helium that fits perfectly inside the object.
Helium – which is 10 times lighter than air, non toxic and non flammable – gives the ultra light object the necessary lift. For our purposes the object needs to be neutrally buoyant in air. Small electric motors with patented two directional propellers are attached at specific points around the object. These motors are controlled by a manual or autonomously operated radio control system which in turn allow us to steer the object in any direction.
This is a very simple explanation, in fact there is a whole stack of extremely complex electronic systems on board each object that allows us to fly it smoothly and accurately along its’ flight path.
We are also able to add various effects such as lighting, moving parts, smoke, etc. which can be linked to the radio control system allowing us to produce some great effects whilst the object is flying.
Are each of your creations piloted by a live operator or can they be programmed to fly in certain areas synchronized to music or other effects?
Our flying objects are normally controlled exclusively by our own trained piloting crews, who have the ability to operate other effects on the objects as well.
We now also offer a fully autonomous control system that will fly a number of objects simultaneously in a preprogrammed flight path. This is particularly interesting for fixed installations where the aerial show must be identical for each performance.
We use a large number of special cameras that are installed around the location and “look down” on the objects below to determine their exact positions. This information is fed into a main computer that is also linked to the preprogrammed controller. The main computer then sends the appropriate control signals to each object to ensure that the objects remains on their predetermined flight path. Again, it sounds simple but in fact it is massively complicated and goes back to our extensive R&D cooperations with other industry leaders where we have worked alongside specialist IT experts who developed this system with us. As far as we are aware, there is no other company that can offer this type of control system for large locations – so it’s another first for us.
The autonomous system is linear time code compatible allowing us to synchronize the flying paths of the objects to music as well as controlling lighting and other effects exactly to the show run. A further benefit is that it can fly the objects with a precision that is unobtainable with a human operator.
A few years ago on the Discovery Channel, I saw a segment on AirPenguin, can you tell me a little about that project?
For many years now, our CEO and creative head has cooperated with Festo AG on various bionic R&D projects. Out of this close cooperation have come some amazing flying objects such as the AirPenguin, AirJelly, SmartBird, SmartInversion, BionicOpter and most recently the eMotionSpheres. For anybody who would like to know more, there is a lot of information and videos on the internet.
Airstage continue to cooperate closely with Festo and develop a new project every year. Indeed our crews accompany, set up and fly these objects for Festo at science events around the world including multi-genre events such as Coachella and Beakerhead.
The abundant knowledge gained in this R&D work is vitally important as it allows us to constantly update and refine our technical ability to create flying solutions that incorporate cutting edge technology and knowhow.
How precise can you fly one of these machines? Are there some conditions more ideal than others for flying?
Our pilots are highly trained and comprise of some of the best radio controlled operators around. The pressure of flying at live events such as an Olympic Opening Ceremony where you are given one chance only to “get it right” in front of millions of viewers, means our pilots also have to have nerves of steel!
Our pilots are so fine tuned to each other that we are also able to offer formation flying with several objects flying together through a choreographed routine.
The autonomous control system opens up new horizons because it can fly the objects to within 1 inch of the preprogrammed flight path… something even our best pilots can not achieve!
As with all lighter-than-air models containing helium, strong winds will have an adverse effect on the controllability of the object so they are best flown in enclosed locations with a controlled environment.
Are there any practical uses for this in a theme park or themed entertainment setting? What are the possibilities?
As I mentioned before, we have very recently started installing fixed autonomously operating aerial shows in theaters and indoor theme parks, and have already noticed that there is a huge amount of interest in our products and services from this sector.
We are able to construct and operate any themed aerial indoor show using radio controlled models that fit the parks concepts and requirements. The flying objects can be used as a stand-alone show or combined into other show productions and performances. The ability to incorporate other show effects into the flying models and operate the complete show autonomously allows us to offer theme parks a wide range of possibilities to incorporate an indoor aerial show into their attractions.
Our initial experiences have shown that utilizing such groundbreaking technology in a theme park environment can at times be a bumpy ride and has been a steep learning curve for us, but we have been honored to work from the very beginning with some of the biggest names and creative talents in the business who have all given us tremendous support.
At this point, may I remind your readers that we will be at the IAAPA 2014 in Orlando (Booth 3484) for the very first time. This is also the first time that Airstage has attended an Expo anywhere – so we are really looking forward to the experience.
Are there any projects that you can talk about that you worked on with this technology?
There are many that I could talk about, but as is so often the case in this industry many of our clients prefer that we do not give away too many details of our cooperation.
We understand that because we also think of our projects like magic shows. We want the audience to marvel at the effect of a seemingly solid object magically flying through the air, or watch objects flying in perfect formation – and at the end of the show go home wondering how that was possible. I believe that is indeed a large part of the success of our Air Entertainment concept.
However Lotte World and Gary Goddard Entertainment have been kind enough to allow us to give some details of the recent Let’s Dream Night Parade project we had the pleasure of working on earlier this year.
How many floating lanterns are used in Let’s Dream?
There are 16 Orbs + 1 Star Orb each with a diameter of 4 feet, plus 6 Lanterns each with a height of 6 feet and width of 3 feet – all flying simultaneously.
Are they controlled by a computer program or live operator?
All 16 orbs are computer controlled by computer. This autonomous system comprises of a tracking system coupled with a flight control system.
The optical tracking system has 24 cameras mounted in the roof. These cameras are set up to cover and monitor the flight area of approximately 200 x 200 x 50 feet, so that each orb can be constantly seen by at least 2 cameras at any one time. All cameras are equipped with filters that only capture infrared light. With 4 infrared markers on the body of each orb the cameras can then detect the orientation and position in space of each flying orb as well as being able to distinguish between each orb individually. The markers are not lit constantly, but flash for only a millisecond – thus saving valuable battery power. The cameras are synced to the flashing signals and constantly send detailed position images of all orbs to the main computer.
The SkySpirit flight control computer is programmed with data specifying the orbs flight paths when flying in a formation. Additionally stored behavior patterns also allow the orbs to fly autonomously through space ensuring that even in chaotic situations, they will not collide with each other but simply move out of each others’ way whilst flying to their next destination.
Because the 6 lanterns and the star orb are required to fly outside the maximum area covered by the optical tracking system and each additional flying object exponentially adds to the complexity of autonomous system’s control ability, they are currently flown manually by the local crew using independent radio control systems. Further development is in progress.
What kind of features do they have such as lighting?
Each object has 8 small propellor drives attached to the outer body by uniquely styled 3D printed motor supports. On the orbs, these 8 drives are attached along the equator of the sphere. On the lanterns, the drives are attached around halfway up the side supports.
We use adaptive propellers with profile modification which is a laser sintered frame that is turned once into a figure of eight and then covered with a flexible membrane. The membrane can inflate on one side or the other, depending on which direction the propellor is turning. This patented system allows the propellers to give equal amounts of thrust in a forward or backward flight mode whilst changing the thrust direction in milliseconds – a feature that is absolutely necessary for the exact flight path control.
The orbs all have interior RGB LED lighting that is radio controlled and can be programmed to the sound track.
The star orb has a special star inlay and onboard interior white LED lighting that can be controlled by the operator.
The lanterns each have different artwork depicting a dream sequence that is fixed on a revolving cylindrical interior turned by an electric motor. The artwork is also backlit by radio controlled interior LED lighting.
We also used a wide variety of onboard hard and software features for each flying object including the infrared communication system, dedicated micro controllers for each motor, intelligent sensor systems for stability and power management, a bespoke cooling system and an ultra light but powerful battery pack that delivers the necessary power to all of the above plus the onboard lighting.
How long can they fly without needing to be recharged?
The flight time depends on the actual power required by the motors and onboard hardware to keep the objects on their predefined flight paths and can vary from day to day depending on adverse air flow conditions as well as varying temperatures and climatic conditions. The orbs can fly for around 15 minutes, whilst the manually controlled lanterns can fly for around 30 minutes.
Editor’s Note: I think we are just scratching the surface in what we will see with these types of flying machines in the world of themed entertainment. I have a feeling we will start to see them in shows and theme parks in the United States in the very near future. For more information, visit Airstage.biz!