Behind the making of a synchronized drone light show

The popularity of drones is soaring. Some, like the synchronized Shooting Star drones created by Intel, are now lifting off in swarms to perform light shows in the night sky.

CBS News correspondent Carter Evans went behind the scenes to see what it takes to turn a dark California night into a canvas in the sky.

drone4.jpg
CBS NEWS

“For Coachella we’ve integrated different animations with palm trees, the Ferris Wheel, which is iconic for Coachella,” said Natalie Cheung, whose team at Intel has been in the drone light show business for about a year and a half.

Their first aerial achievement was choreographing 100 drones to music.

When a drone swarm takes off, Cheung said, it’s like “Just knots of pure excitement and joy! Excitement. I’m so excited to see these drones take off, and just crossing my fingers.”

Now they can fly as many as 500 synchronized drones. To create each spectacle, a team of programmers, engineers and animators first built it on a computer.

drone3.jpg
CBS NEWS

Cheung explained that they upload a pre-planned pattern to the whole fleet of drones, which they then follow in the sky.

“We know exactly what’s going to happen to our drones at every frame and second,” she said.

Cheung’s biggest stage yet was Lady Gaga’s halftime show during Super Bowl LI.An audience of 111 million watched 300 twinkling drones form a giant aerial American flag.

Drones are taking Intel in a new direction. The company normally associated with microprocessors and semiconductors is about to release its first commercial drone, the Falcon 8+.  Anil Nanduri, Intel’s vice president of new technology, explained some of its features.

“You sometimes want to take pictures from below, and this gimbal is designed so you can take 180 degrees,” Nanduri said.

With a high-res camera and other sensors, the drone can be deployed for a variety of infrastructure inspections and that can help keep humans out of harm’s way.

The Shooting Star drones utilize the same autopilot technology as the Falcon 8+, except there are no humans manning a remote control for each drone.

“We have this master computer that is the pilot. And that manages the whole fleet as we call it,” Nanduri said.

Intel worked closely with the Federal Aviation Administration to get special permission to launch a drone swarm.  FAA regulations require one pilot per drone, and they can only fly during daylight.  Intel was granted a waiver so one pilot with a laptop can control multiple drones at night, but never directly above an audience.

The performance team is surprisingly small.

“We actually need two people: a pilot and a backup pilot,” Cheung said. The backup is only in case the pilot can’t make it to the event.

Each drone carries just a single LED, but there are more than four billion color combinations, according to Cheung.

But one of the best parts of the show is something the public doesn’t get to see – the drones returning to the ground.

“It’s just so beautiful just to see all these stars and drones just falling down gracefully. And there’s just a slight buzz around you, it’s great,” Cheung said.

What happens if the drone should fail or lose communication with the computer? They’re equipped with a GPS to find their way home and land by themselves.