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Dancing with Drones

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London-based choreographer Nina Kov dances with drones.

Dancing with Drones: aerial surveillance, or modern choreography?

Credit: Collmot

Unmanned aerial vehciles (UAVs), or drones, have developed a reputation as weapons of war, invaders of privacy, and potential threats to public safety. They are also emerging in the theatre of artistic performance, bringing a new dimension to entertainment, driving innovation in computer science, and fuelling the debate about acceptable and unacceptable use.

The application of drones to dance is leading the creation of artistic performance pieces that integrate people and intelligent flying machines, as well as raising questions about their potential.

Nina Kov is a choreographer and dancer with an interest in technology that can capture motion. In 2012, she entered Copter, a three-dimensional duet featuring a small helicopter and a dancer moving together, into the Place Prize, a U.K.-based contemporary dance competition sponsored by Bloomberg. Kov did not win, but her interest in technology did not wane; she has since collaborated with a research team led by Tamás Vicsek, a professor in the Biological Physics department at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, that is studying collective motion.

The research group, called CollMot, developed Dancing with Drones, a project funded by a European Union ICT Art Connect grant and designed to show peaceful, civil and creative applications of drones and the potential of collaboration between scientists and artists.

The project began with the team looking at universal laws of motion and how to link together human and machine motion. Work on Dancing with Drones then started using GPS technology and a flock of semi-autonomous intelligent drones that humans could communicate with through movement; the drones could also communicate with each other. Dancing with Drones premiered in August 2015, and a European tour is planned for 2016.

Says Kov, "Having an artist in the lab forces computer scientists to work out of the box. In the case of Dancing with Drones, artists working with scientists acted as a catalyst for innovation." While the end result of the Dancing with Drones project is pretty spectacular, Kov notes the development process was difficult and took six years to complete using commercially available drones, the computer science capabilities of the research team, and her own choreographic skills.

CollMot has since become a commercial vehicle and Kov its artistic director. The company will exploit the innovation created by Dancing with Drones, while continuing to support its performance, and is considering applications of the flock such as land measurement, identifying flora and fauna in national parks, and search and rescue. While these types of applications should have beneficial outcomes, Kov is mindful of the negativity associated with drones. "We need to promote drones in a positive way. Instead of regulatory prohibition, we need to make sure people are not scared of drones and that they are used for good purposes."

This sentiment is reflected by Superflux, a small design studio based in London funded by Arts Council England to develop Drone Aviary, an ongoing research and development project investigating the social, political, and cultural potential of drone technology, and designed to give a glimpse into a near-future city in which intelligent semi-autonomous, networked flying machines co-habit. Says Anab Jain, co-founder and director of Superflux, "We try to understand how emerging technologies will impact and shape lives. We do this by creating artifacts and films, and consider the potential and unintended consequences of using new technologies. Opinion on drones is polarized, with some people believing they are useful, while others think they are a danger to privacy. It is not our job to judge, but to consider what is possible."

The Drone Aviary project is not driven solely by artistic intent, but uses similar technologies to Dancing with Drones, including intelligent drones that, in this case, are built by Superflux. Each drone is designed to be symbolic of the convergence of social and technology trends and has specific functionality, including the ability to gather and disseminate data. For example, Madison is a flying billboard that can tailor advertisements to the interests of those within its vicinity. The Newsbreaker media drone pushes the boundaries of high-frequency journalism using algorithms to deliver breaking news as it happens. These and other drones developed by Superflux were part of a groundbreaking show called ‘All of This Belongs to You’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London this summer.

Back in the pure performance arena, Welby Altidor, executive creative director of creations at Cirque du Soleil, said of the combination of technology and performance, "The perception of drones is that they are associated with surveillance and war. We are driven by the idea of being warriors of peace and want to change that perception. We also strive to bring magic into projects we create and always use flying objects and acrobats in our performances. There has not been much artistic experimentation with drones, so we decided to integrate drones as characters in a story."

Cirque du Soleil worked on its first project with drones in collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland (ETH Zurich), an international university specializing in technology and natural sciences, and Verity Studios, a spin-off from ETH Zurich’s Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control developing a new breed of dynamic flying machines. After a number of brainstorms between the project participants, and still more iterations of ideas, the collaboration created Sparked, a short film that tells the story of a man repairing lampshades in an old-fashioned workshop before the lampshades ‘come to life’ and interact with him in a choreographed performance including 11 actors – one man and 10 machines.

Altidor explains: "We gave the lampshades different personalities and used an actor to interact with the drones within the lampshades. We chose lampshades because we wanted to hide the technology and deliver a magical visual performance. Creating an immersive experience in new territory for Cirque du Soleil was very exciting, but a lot of debugging was needed."

The film shoot took place in the Flying Machine Arena at ETH Zurich, a space dedicated to autonomous flight that incorporates flying machines, a high-precision motion capture system, a wireless communication network, and custom software executing algorithms for estimation and control. Altidor says programming the drones to follow choreography without colliding and to return to the choreography if their path is disturbed was a significant challenge.

Altidor said while there were mishaps along the way, Sparked inspired Cirque du Soleil to start developing an artistic project based on drones for a live arena. He declined to provide any detail, except to say the first iterations of a project are underway and a live performance may be possible within the next year.

Sarah Underwood is a technology writer based in Teddington, U.K.


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