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Music

Drake's tech-filled concerts use drones as backup dancers

Started from the bottom, now the drones are here.

Alfred Ng / CNET

At Drake's concert at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night, the air was filled with more than just the roar of 18,000 fans.

There were also 88 micro drones flying around the rapper during two songs in his two-hour show, synched up with his tracks Elevate and Look Alive. They hovered around with bright lights, changing colors from red to blue to white, like a swarm of large fireflies twinkling above the rapper.

While it may not have been the most eye-catching display -- at one point the stage transformed into a giant iPhone X scrolling through Instagram, and then there was the floating Ferrari above the crowd -- it was likely the most technologically innovative stunt in a show filled with spectacles. That's because unlike other drone shows, this mini-Air Force was programmed to take flight autonomously.

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The elaborate choreography was coordinated between Drake's production team and Verity Studios, a Swiss company that boasts investments from Sony and Kitty Hawk, the flying car startup from Google's founder Larry Page.

Drake's use of coordinated, autonomous drones is just the latest example of the growing role that technology plays in the entertainment world. In particular, drones have taken to the skies at major events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics. As drone technology and artificial intelligence improves, you can expect to see more drones dancing along with your favorite acts.

Verity has used drones for shows on cruise ships and in the Singapore airport, but the Drake tour has been its biggest shows yet.

"With the current technology that we have, Drake is as good as it gets," said Rafaello D'Andrea, the founder of Verity Studios. "But we can do a lot more, creatively."

Way up

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One of these micro drones weighs less than a slice of bread.

Mark Licea/CNET

Verity Studios makes its own drones, which weigh less than two ounces, or as D'Andrea described it, "the same as a slice of bread."

The drones use an indoor GPS system mapped out by their own Kedge Localization Unit -- think a small central satellite scanning every corner of a room and sending coordinates to the drones.

These small satellites can communicate with the drones without needing Bluetooth or Wi-Fi by using Ultra-Wideband, a radio technology that can transfer data quickly over the air, according to Verity Studios' patents.

The drones emit signals to tell the indoor GPS system where they are, and then the sensors will respond and tell these drones where they need to go, based on the choreographed routine. The company said UWB works better than Wi-Fi or Bluetooth because it's less likely to have connection issues, which are rampant during events like concerts.

Verity Studios has done shows with Metallica, as well as Cirque du Soleil, which spent $500,000 in production costs to have the drones dressed as flying lampshades.

Because all the choreography is preprogrammed, it doesn't take a drone expert to pilot them at the shows, D'Andrea said. For Drake's tour, the drone company just set up the machines and shipped them over. It can manage the drones from a distance if anything were to go wrong.

When Verity Studios trains show crews, it's usually with people who have never flown a drone before, he said. It takes up to three days for the training to finish, and the majority of the time is spent on "In Case of Emergency" scenarios.

As far as operating the drones, the controller boils down to just four buttons: Play/Pause, Abort, Soft Stop and Arm (a sort of warm-up button). It looked simpler to understand than a payphone.

Sky's the limit

With the controls out of the way, the challenge for an indoor drone show then becomes how to make it look more than just lights floating in the room. The creative teams for Cirque du Soleil figured that out with lampshades. In a 2011 clip, D'Andrea showed off two drones juggling a ball between each other seamlessly.

He talked about the great potential for creativity that drones can have for shows, like making a face in the air from hundreds of lights.

"Imagine you're in an arena, and you can have thousands of these things flying over the audience," D'Andrea said. "You can really push what you can do creatively."

drake

Drake performing "Look Alive" with drones in the background. 

Verity Studios

He said he wished his team had more time to work with Drake's production crew to come up with routines for the drones. The rapper's team requested the drones at the end of May, and 200 drones were shipped out and programmed by the end of June, he said -- with less than 30 days to get everything done.

At the show, I saw the limitations that D'Andrea talked about. The drones did waves and spins above Drake, but you could see there was plenty more they could have done. If you weren't specifically looking for the drones, it was hard to tell the difference between the flying lights and the lights hanging above the stage.

When I asked fans in the crowd what they thought of the drones, it was more of an afterthought than the main attraction. It's a shame, but understandable: Their eyes were more focused on Drake than the floating lights above him.

It's not like the audience didn't care for airborne acts -- at one part, all eyes were on the floating Ferrari, which made headlines when the tour kicked off on Aug. 13. These drones were the most technologically advanced part of Drake's concert, but also among the least captivating.

While shows like the Drake concert are massive spectacles, D'Andrea envisions the opportunity for his drones to play a big role at smaller scale events.

"Imagine your one special moment for your wedding, and you have your favorite song, and you get a choreography created for your special song with these drones," he said. 

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