Lighting up the sky
One sure fire way to produce a theatrical spectacle that blows your audience away is to create an experience that towers over the crowd.
When directing a show on a 240 metre-wide outdoor stage with a set just a few meters high, this presents a unique challenge, one that Nicolas de Villiers has wrestled with for years. He is president of the historical theme park Le Puy Du Fou – France’s second biggest after Disneyland Paris.
The headline show at the park is ‘La Cinéscénie’ – a one hour forty minute extravaganza involving 1,200 actors, hundreds of horses and countless fireworks. In 2012 the park, decided to redesign the show’s lighting and commissioned Belgian architectural and entertainment lighting specialists ACT Lighting Design to make it happen.
Late one night while working on the project, Puy Du Fou’s president Nicolas de Villiers described the challenges of producing a show on such a massive stage to founder and principal designer of ACTLD Koert Vermeulen. “Nicolas said that for years he had been looking at La Cinéscénie as a letterbox,” says Koert. “The only thing that goes above the stage is the fireworks and he was saying he would love to open it up.”
Koert asked Nicolas if he had considered using drones and showed him some videos demonstrating their capabilities. “The next day he called me at 10am and said he wasn’t able to sleep all night because he was constantly thinking about drones,” says Koert.
Within weeks Koert had assembled a team to design an entertainment drone capable of carrying and operating scenery, lighting, audio-visual equipment and even pyrotechnics in synchronisation with the rest of the show. A short proof of concept demonstration was all it took for Nicolas to agree a partnership to create ‘the Neopter’, with Puy Du Fou meeting the €2 million development costs and ACTLD inventing and engineering the system.
Within a year the team had created a fleet of pilotless drones capable of taking off from land or water, carrying a 2.5kg payload for up to 11 minutes and operating in rain, snow and winds of up to 25km/h. The first version of the Neopter made its debut in last year’s Cinéscénie, and since then the design has been improved to make it more robust and easier to maintain as well as boosting carrying capacity to 3kg for 14 minutes.
Taking creative control
Unlike many new adopters, ACTLD decided to design and manufacture the drones themselves. “We had two choices,” says Koert. “Either work with a commercial manufacturer and say here are the specs, make them and make sure they work at La Cinéscénie. The other way was controlling all aspects of the drone manufacture ourselves and also taking on the financial risk. But that also meant becoming an author of our invention.”
Having never dealt with drones before this could have been a risky decision, but fortunately Koert had hired an engineer just months before who had worked extensively with drones during his PhD. He was able to take over as technical director supported by a team of 50 engineers, technicians, designers and programmers, but Koert also believes his distinctive experience as a creative person with his own approach and naivety, helped drive the project forward. “It is actually refreshing to step in with no rooted knowledge and just impossible ideas,” he says. “That gets the juices flowing of people that sometimes don’t dare to go somewhere because of restrictions from elsewhere.”
The growing drone industry meant finding parts was not too difficult despite occasionally long lead times. More challenging was a complete departure from standard commercial drone design, which often focuses on monitoring applications. For the Neopter, the key design elements were carrying capacity and the ability to synchronise with the rest of the performance.
While boosting carrying capacity was a standard mechanical engineering problem, creating a fleet of drones that could follow stage cues autonomously required a novel approach. Eventually, the team decided to make the drones run on the universal timecode used by theatrical productions to synchronise lighting, sound and stage directions.
The drones are choreographed to the Cinéscénie’s timecode using a virtual representation of the stage created in 3D design program Blender. This file is uploaded to each drone and the timecode is then transmitted over both WiFi and radio, with an internal timecode as a backup if they lose the signal. The drones use GPS to navigate the stage with an accuracy of a couple of centimetres thanks to a precision-boosting ground station.
“Our competitors are limited to 30 or 40 machines because they can’t manage the throughput to sync all the drones. We can do literally thousands because each drone knows where it needs to be,” says Koert. “But with 50 drones in the air it gets very crowded so you need to have very precise motor control.”
In the event of battery or motor problems the drones are able to return to base or make an emergency landing and the flight director is also able to take manual control. But according to Koert the majority of failures have been down to human error. “It’s people panicking and putting them into an emergency descent when it’s unnecessary rather than trusting the system to correct itself,” he says.
Clearing the regulatory hurdles
Despite the technical challenges involved, the novel design of the drone actually helped smooth the process of getting regulatory approval. When the team approached French civil aviation authority DGAC there was no legislation on drones in place and while they had seen many pilot controlled systems, an autonomous entertainment drone was something completely unheard of.
“Quite early they decided to take our project as a pilot project. We were an unusual case designing and making everything ourselves so we had very quick reaction times,” says Koert. “Although they were asking us to do things we didn’t really want to do that cost a lot of money, we really felt that they partnered with us to get the results.”
With safety and accountability paramount for the DGAC, they insisted that the drones not be flown over people, that both the flight director and their assistant have pilot’s licenses and that the flight director has a kill switch to shut down either individual drones or the entire fleet if they stray out of the flight zone or the director’s line of sight. “They needed a human at the end of the chain who was ultimately responsible,” says Koert.
With regulatory approval now under their belt and a flexible design, Koert is confident of the business potential of the drone. They have already had contact from several interested parties and they plan to commercialise the Neopter drone by October.
“We had to do a lot of reprogramming and redesigning to get approval,” says Koert. “It had an enormous impact on our design but we can now say we have the first commercially working system out there ready to bring a completely new experience to the public.”
This summer, 50 Neopters will perform daily in front of thousands of spectators; a world first and a historical turning point for the entertainment industry.