Racing with drones and dancing with robots

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[Note: this is a rough cut. Just thinking out loud.]

(800 words + videos; approx. 30 mins. reading/viewing)

A new technology only becomes part of our daily world when we can play with it, and use it to create meaning and new forms of beauty. This is why sports and the arts are good places to watch for the uptake of new technologies. Consider the example of small drones, like quadcopters.

As someone who has flown a quadcopter once or twice, I have to say it was not intuitive, and it takes some getting used to. Yet, things have advanced rapidly, partly because people are starting to race with them. For example, there are now high-stakes drone ‘Grand Prix’ races:

There was even a World Drone Racing Championship in Shenzen, China, held November 1-4, 2018, sponsored by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the official international body that governs air sports. A 15-year-old Australian, Rudi Browning, became the first ever FAI Drone Racing World Champion. In the video below, the race itself starts at the 4:47 mark. If you start a little before that, you can catch a glimpse of the VR headsets the competitors use to visualize what their drone sees while they fly it using joysticks.

To be of use to the competitor or artist, technologies must become nimble and capable of great nuance, as well as safe to be around both for the performers and the audience. For example, the 2019 Super Bowl Halftime show featured a drone swarm backing the musical group Maroon 5. The swarm spelled out the word ‘One’ in lights, then reconfigured to spell ‘Love’. It might not seem like much, but it was a feat to fly so many drones in close formation indoors, without GPS.

Some of the control algorithms that allow for drone swarms are described by Raffeaello D’Andrea in his 2013 TED talk. D’Andrea describes himself as a Canadian/Italian/Swiss engineer, artist, and entrepreneur, a kind of double triple-threat. He is professor of dynamic systems and control at ETH Zurich, co-founder of Kiva Systems, and a founder of Verity Studios.

The ‘model-based’ control theory he describes is based upon Newtonian mechanics, and is an example of how even now — a century after Newton’s world view was replaced by Einstein’s — we can still use Newton’s ideas to understand how things move in space and time in our local part of the world.

Dance troupes and performance artists are also learning how to work with drones, for example Marco Tempest, who works with Rhizomatiks Research, a tech and media company based in Tokyo.

The Japanese dance troupe Elevenplay performed with those 24 drones:

The thing to keep in mind is that artists are still learning how to play with a rapidly advancing technology, and to explore a new aesthetic for it. So focus on what’s becoming possible, rather than comparing these exploratory performances to other, more mature, forms of performance where artists have had generations to perfect their moves to achieve aesthetic effects. As the onboard drone intelligence increases, and the suite of sensors improves, the nimbleness of the control systems will improve. Over time, we can expect far more nuanced interactions between machine and human.

Rhizomatik + Elevenplay have also created some really interesting performance pieces with robots and other kinds of tech.

“Yaskawa,” by Rhizomatiks + Elevenplay.
“Discrete Figures,” by Elevenplay + Rhizomatiks.

In a different style of performance, the following short film, a collaboration between Rafaello D’Andrea and Cirque du Soleil, shows how precision flying can be done, with real artistry and grace. This is live performance, not CGI:

“Sparked: A live interaction between humans and drones,” Cirque du Soleil and Rafeallo D’Andrea.

Here’s the ‘Making of’ video that shows the background work and testing that went into the previous film:

In this post, I wanted to highlight the fun stuff, because these days we tend to see the world darkly. But, I will note briefly at the end that, of course, these technologies can also be turned into weapons. That’s what turns pure delight in discovery and invention into a dangerous form of wonder. A topic for another day.

Image: Maria the Robot, pondering an offer to dance from her scientist inventor. From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

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