Sci-Tech

Behind the scenes of a drone orchestra

New mini-documentary shows how launching a squadron of costumed drones over the heads of a live audience "was like a military operation."

drone-orchestra-ii.jpg
The drones in this theater are so dang noisy! Sidd Kharjuria

In September, a fleet of drones adorned with feathers, fringy rubber balls and a disco suit made from 4,000 fake nails took off over the heads of hundreds of patrons at London's Barbican theater. For the next 80 futuristic minutes, they were treated to a concert created by musician and composer John Cale and speculative architect Liam Young. During the concert, the drones flew around the theater and piped Cale's voice, different audio tracks and their own motor sounds over the audience.

Now, The Creators Project, a collaboration between Intel and Vice magazine, has produced a 10-minute mini-documentary that lets viewers glimpse the rationale, logistics and artistic vision behind such an ambitious project.


Cale, a founding member of the rock band Velvet Underground, said he viewed the project as "a collaboration between airborne architecture and music."

"It took a long time to find the right venue," Young said in the video about choosing The Barbican as a venue. "Putting these technologies above people's heads that are really violent; they spin at extraordinary speeds. These propellers are gonna take someone's head off if you let them. It required someone with some vision and some bravery to let us attempt it. And it really is the first time that these things have been flown above the heads of an audience."

To develop the technology to control a fleet of 15 drones flying over a live audience, a tracking system was developed based on one used to control model trains. Receivers were planted in the ceiling and transmitters that sent out ultrasonic pulses were mounted on top of the drones. This allowed the crew to triangulate each drone's position in 3D.

drone-orchestra-i.jpg
"It really is the first time that these things have been flown above the heads of an audience," said Liam Young. Sidd Kharjuria

"It was like a military operation," Producer Keri Elmsly told The Creators Project about controlling the drones from the orchestra pit. "And you had no idea what would happen."

Including what happened just prior to the concert: the autonomous system that was supposed to operate the drones conked out and human pilots needed to step in. Humans were also responsible for constantly swapping out the battery packs from the drones, which drained in about 5-to-10 minutes because of the weight they were carrying.

Young said one of the effects of the performance was to transmute a negative sound into a positive one. "What you have is that a sound that is typically associated with terror actually becomes repurposed in a space like this and becomes quite moving."

Although the entire performance (which was called "LOOP>>60Hz: Transmissions from the Drone Orchestra") wasn't recorded, the documentary gives you a good idea of what went down (and up). If that's not enough for you, be sure to check out the performance's accompanying online site, "City of Drones." But be careful, piloting a drone around a futuristic animated landscape could just hypnotize you for the rest of the day.