If the Robot Apocalypse is of concern to you, it might be a good idea to avoid Broadway theaters these days.
Cirque du Soleil, the innovative Montreal-based acrobatic troupe, has elevated the unmanned aerial vehicle — aka drones — to performer status in its first Broadway show, Paramour.
In the show, which is currently playing at the New York’s Lyric Theatre, eight custom-built quadcopters are “dressed” as lampshades and interact with human performers on stage.
Meanwhile, over at Radio City Music Hall (RCMH), that venerable venue’s equally venerable holiday spectacular is also being buttressed by identifiable flying objects.
RCMH’s flying objects are actually helium-filled plastic balloons fitted with small motors and propellers that move each of the four-foot-diameter “snowflakes” along a GPS-prescribed route above the stage. But the difference between Radio City’s flying objects and those used in Paramour is the difference between a blimp and helicopter.
Proof of Concept
What takes place in Paramour is an extension of what the show’s technical supervisor David Benken says was a proof-of-concept video, Sparked: A Live Interaction Between Humans and Quadcopters (video below), using similarly dressed quadcopters and produced in 2014 by Cirque du Soleil and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich).
ETH Zurich is the academy that acted as the incubator for Verity Studios, a two-year-old commercial UAV venture that integrates drones into live entertainment environments.
“We took the idea of Sparked and adapted it to a Broadway show,” says Benken. “But it’s something that Cirque has been looking at for some time now.”
Drones have been looked at as a way to bring the physical equivalent of cinematic CGI into live events. That’s the context that Bill Keays, science and technology advisor at Cirque du Soleil, discussed the integration of drones and live performance with RoboHub, an online robotics forum.
“They are in dress like all actors in this movie; they have character, motivation and certainly no lack of presence,” he says, noting that the idea behind Sparked began in 2012. “… I would be inclined to challenge the assumption that they are playing a supporting role.”
What has held the use of drones back from live events has been safety issues. Preprogramming of drones’ choreography characterized the first attempts at bringing them into the theater.
But the potential for operational disruption, due to issues such as RF interference from audience mobile devices or optical distraction from camera flashes or stray laser light showed the limitations there.
An alternative vision-based system was also attempted by some users, in which quadcopters use onboard cameras reading floor-mounted patterns to orient themselves.
However, the number of quadcopters capable of using that method is limited by occlusion: once a critical level of vehicle density is reached, they begin blocking out each other’s ability to “see” the directions.
Another approach, centralized control architecture, through which all commands are forwarded to a single computer, fails to offer the redundancy required in a live situation; a failure in that computer’s hardware or software could result in a sudden loss of control for the complete fleet.
One only has to look back to Broadway’s 2014 Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, which was plagued by injuries and one fatality, to see what kind if mayhem special effects gone awry can lead to.