Drones Over Broadway: UAVs Play Big Role in Paramour Musical

Theatrical applications such as Cirque du Soleil’s Broadway show Paramour has paved the way for UAVs use for live events.

Dan Daley
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Technical Improvements

The technical achievements of Verity Studios may have addressed that once and for all, their researchers have moved away from vision-based localization.

They have developed a new RF-based proprietary localization system backed by redundant fail-safe algorithms that prevent the failure of any one quadcopter from bringing down the rest of the fleet (which Verity’s engineers refer to as a “synthetic swarm”).

This has allowed for safely choreographed performances eight times a week, in front of a live audience of up to 2,000 people, and without nets.

Benken says that in addition to these technical improvements, Paramour always has a dedicated controller backstage monitoring the drones’ activity. The show also limits drone use to within two meters (6.5 feet) of the stage edge.

That buffer zone, he says, allows enough time for a crewmember out in the house to manually kill the system, prompting all of the drones to immediately land in predetermined spots automatically.

In addition, if the battery on any drone falls below a preset threshold, it will also automatically land itself safely away from performers and audience members.

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Before every performance, Paramour‘s drone crew does a test run to recalibrate the fleet, running all eight “performers” and two spare “understudies” through a basic ensemble routine to confirm flight and control readiness.

He says that Verity’s algorithms allow the drones to “learn” their program with each performance, during which they can calculate and register their positions on the stage and relative to each other.

“They learn in the sense that they know where they’re supposed to be at any given point in the performance, and they get feedback in real time as to where they actually are compared to that,” he explains. “When we bring in a new drone, its performance can vary by as much as half a meter. But it gets better every time it flies.”

The drones’ software is updated periodically, by logging them into Verity’s secure website.

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Then there are environmental issues particular to each venue. Benken says that they drones, which weigh 750 grams (1.65 lbs.) each, have their weights slightly altered depending upon which lampshade they are wearing, so their programming takes that into account.

They are also susceptible to being blown off course by air currents, so the theater’s HVAC system is turned off just ahead of and during their performances to give the air in the theater time to settle.

Benken says that operators monitor each drone’s status wirelessly on a computer over Wi-Fi.

“As much as possible, we try to restrict other Wi-Fi signals in the theatre to avoid interference,” he explains. “The actual positioning of the drones on stage is achieved using a proprietary wireless system developed by Verity. This keeps the drone communication out of the UHF range currently allocated to Broadway theaters by the FCC.”

In order to avoid interference with house electrics such as the theater’s radio-controlled lighting dimmers and automation systems and the audience Wi-Fi, which patrons use to order drinks in the theater, Benken says they monitor all the frequencies in use in the building and keep the drone control between the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz frequencies.

Who Are You?

Drones are so new on Broadway that technicians are still figuring out how to categorize them. Benken says because they’re automated, the fall under the purview of the theater’s carpenters, who are generally in charge of a production’s special effects. However, since they’re also in costume — in this case, the lamp shades — they can also be part of the props department.

“Props handle the looks and the carpenters maintain and operate them,” he says. “It’s so new that we needed to figure out how to categorize them. But one thing that Broadway doesn’t need is another crafts category.”

But that’s what they may need if their success in Paramour takes them beyond the novelty stage.

“We are just now scratching the surface of what can be done,” says Federico Augugliaro, a drone engineer at Verity Studios in Zurich. “But the [Cirque du Soleil] show clearly shows the potential for drones” in theater and other live-event production.

And if drones continue to “take off” in the theater, it might be the Tony Awards that will be looking to add another category.