Talking Shooting Star Drones With Intel’s Natalie Cheung

By Nick Zazulia | February 23, 2018

Intel Shooting Star drones from the Olympic rings as part of the Winter Games opening ceremony. Photo courtesy of Intel

You probably remember the Olympic rings hanging in the air during the opening ceremony, like a set of perfectly placed, everlasting fireworks. Or, if you're one of the 112 million people who watched the Super Bowl in 2016, you likely recall the giant American flag in the air behind Lady Gaga during the halftime show, seemingly made of nothing but light.

Thanks to the fanfare they have gotten in the wake of those events, you may already know that those feats and others like them were possible thanks to the coordinated efforts of a fleet of Intel unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), dubbed Shooting Star drones.

You may not know that those hordes — more than 1,200 machines in the case of the Olympics performance — are all operated by a single pilot; or that Intel has grand designs on possibly leveraging the technology it has developed for the Shooting Stars into commercial applications.

Just think of what a fleet of coordinated UAS under the control of one operator could potentially accomplish in the commercial space.

If you're Natalie Cheung, the general manager of Intel's drone light shows, thinking of those kinds of possibilities is just one tiny part of your job. Avionics spoke with Cheung (who is in Pyeongchang, South Korea, overseeing her ever-growing armada) about the Shooting Stars, where they came from and where they might be going next.


Natalie Cheung oversees Intel's Shooting Star program and drone light shows. Screenshot from an Intel promotional video

What do you do as the general manager of Intel's drone team in charge of light shows?

It's changed since 2015.

In 2015, with the idea of a hundred drones, that was something that I looked into, and I worked with the FAA to get Section 333 exemption to fly in the U.S.

One of our goals in 2016 was to do four 100-drone shows across the world. In Australia, Germany, Mexico and the U.S., I was the one that helped create those events and figure out where we could go and what technology would need working with engineers to ensure that we could fly in these four countries.

Then in 2017 this became a full-time job, where I was managing the onsite operations crew, the animation team, the project managers for each project and focusing on: "how do we grow this business, how do we showcase drones across the world and how do we make sure that we have the right certifications to fly?"

I'm also super invested in talking to customers and showcasing the new technology and this new vision of what nighttime entertainment can become. There's a lot of different things I do on a day-to-day basis, but I'm just making sure that we, on a high level, grow the light shows so that it can be seen around the world in different environments and by different audiences.

What makes Shooting Star drones so special? What enables the coordinated, precise routines?

Intel has created both the hardware and the software for the drone light show. What makes it so special is that this is the only kind of drone built specifically for light shows. As a larger footprint, Intel focuses on commercial drones and research drones as well as light-show drones. And through the work that we had been doing on general drones, we said, we really need to recreate a new drone just for light shows so that we can basically get out all of the sensors we don't need and we can make it as lightweight and safe as possible so it can do two things really well: fly with great precision and shine a really bright LED.

What's really great about this technology is that tens, hundreds, even a thousand or more drones can be controlled by one pilot. That precision and that ability to fly multiple drones per pilot is something that isn't very typical in the done industry. I think we flew 1,218 for the Olympics opening ceremony; that's something that's never been done before, and that's why it's so different from anything else that people have seen.

We've hit on the tech aspects of what makes it so unique; I want to hit on the experience aspect. We're literally changing how drones are being viewed in the industry and by the public. People see drones as being for aerial photography, aerial videography, but we're creating a very new nighttime experience. We see something that can become an enhancement or even a replacement for fireworks, which is a super old industry that hasn't really been altered or touched in many decades, so we see this as a great opportunity to showcase how nighttime entertainment can be changed in both events and celebration in fireworks or even branding in the sky. Imagine having the Avionics logo in the sky in 360 degrees; no one has seen that concept before, and that's what we're trying to scratch the surface on.

A computer screen reflects the formation taken by the fleet of Shooting Star drones. Photo courtesy of Intel

You mentioned that Shooting Star drones are a big departure from what UAS normally are or have been, in terms of how they look and act. I'm curious where the idea to, in a lot of ways, reinvent some basic things about them came from.

We have a really smart engineering team!

I guess, in general, the whole project started off with a hallway conversation where we were chatting, and one of the ideas was "How do we put an Intel logo as a marketing idea on top of our headquarters lobby?" This was 2015.

And at that point, the most drones that had been controlled by one pilot was like 40, and it was something where we ended up using an R&D drone that we had hacked and put an LED payload on to prove a point, and we said "Okay, can we push the technical limits and create a fleet that can be flown with 100 drones and one pilot?"

Back then, that was big for us. That had never been done, and we didn't know how to do it. In November of that year, we got the Guinness world record in Germany and flew 100 drones in the sky controlled by one pilot. We had an orchestra that was choreographed with the drones. We want to show the world how different it is when you merge this sort of technology with art. And that's where we said let's see how we can push the boundaries, and because of that, we actually decided we need to build a new drone. The drone that we had used was carbon fiber and super heavy. The props were not encased in the prop cage. It was just something that we were testing.

So the engineers in Germany redesigned it and they took their drone knowledge and said: "Let's make a lightweight drone. Let's make something that weighs about the weight of a volleyball, so 330 grams. Let's make sure it's not carbon fiber or anything hard; let's make sure it's made out of plastic and foam. Let's make sure the props are encased in a prop cage. Let's get rid of any sensors that we don't need, let's just make sure it has a really good LED payload so it can create a really bright light, and let's make sure it has that precision."

The precision came from the technology that the team had built in their previous years and working on the commercial drones. They have an autopilot that's unique and its triple-redundant in the commercial drone. And we took a subset of that and we put it into the Intel Shooting Star drone. That's why the 330-gram drone has that precision that most others don't. We not only built a new drone in terms of hardware, we also took a step back and said let's start from scratch. Instead of limiting ourselves to 100, let's make sure that the technology, from the software perspective, is unlimited in terms of the number of drones that we can put into our fleet. So, our team also created a new software control system to match the drones that we had.

Intel brings more drones than it will need for a show, and its system picks the ones performing the best to take part in it. Photo courtesy of Intel


What is the redundancy like in the case of the network link failing or a battery issue when it's show time?

We have emergency protocols or procedures. If there is a link that is off or if there's an issue with the GPS, then that specific drone will land. The beauty of having so many drones is that in the animation, the difference between 299 drones or 300 is not visible to the eye, and we have so many drones creating one image that it is not noticeable. So, the experience itself is the same and the drones create that redundancy for the experience.

On the regulation front, Intel has a special dispensation from the FAA to go up to 700 feet. I'm curious what getting that looked like and what you had to do or prove to receive that kind of certification and exemption.

Let me talk about that both on a global level as well as an FAA level. We've been doing shows for a little over a year, starting with Disney and the Super Bowl halftime show, Coachella and also internationally. We've been both getting radio certification clearance as well as the aviation certification. We've had over 10 countries' aviation certification to fly our unique drone fleet. Multiple drones per pilot and at night are the two typical waivers that we need to apply for (in most countries) and explain the safety and the technology that Intel has built.

With the FAA, we have a blanket waiver for flying multiple drones per pilot at night up to 400 feet in Class G (uncontrolled) airspace. So, in different instances or for events, we will apply for a waiver to fly in Class B airspace (near busy airports) or to fly up to 500 feet. It just depends on the specific event. For the Super Bowl, we applied for a permit to fly in Class B airspace up to 700 feet. In other instances, we've flown in Class B airspace up to 400 feet or up 200 feet.

One of the little things that we've done is we flew at the Consumer Electronics Show and what was really cool there is in January of this year we said, "Let's push ourselves in terms of what else the drones can show," and we flew synchronized with music and the Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas. We flew at hotel height so that we could be very close to the fountains and synchronized with them for a great show.

Overall, it just depends on the event: Do we need to use our blanket waiver or do we need to get ahead of the game and apply early for the for the waiver to fly in a different airspace?

Intel has consistently set and reset the Guinness World Record for most UAS simultaneously flown.
over the last couple years. Photo courtesy of Intel

Where do you see the program going, or what do you see being tried out that hasn't yet?

Had you asked me this for this year I would have said, "How do we get to 1,000 drones?"

So, that's a tough question to answer.

"How do we fly in all different environments?" is probably the general answer to your question.

Going back to each show and each event, each of them brought a very different and unique perspective. And we're learning so much on the ground about how we make sure that we can fly in any environment. Right now, we don't fly in rain or snow or high winds but how do we fly in all those?

Do you think the solution is a different type of drone or different attachments, or do you think one thing can do all of that?

I'll leave it to the smarter people here to solve that problem. But I think the question is something like, "How do we fly in higher wind; how do we fly lighter in light rain?" Go slowly getting the progression. How do you make sure that we can bring a great experience and showcase different features?

Or maybe it's a longer time period for a show. Or going way over 1,000 drones. There's just so many different variables in building a drone light show that we can enhance and add to our future settlement to our system.

Brian Krzanich, Intel Corporation chief executive officer, showing a Shooting Star Mini drone during the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show. Photo by Walden Kirsch/Intel Corporation


Is there the potential for these drones to be commercially available in the future? A possibility where, instead of bringing Intel in to do drone shows, people can simply purchase the drones and use them as they see fit?

It's something that could be possible. Right now, we aren't selling drones. This is something that is purely Intel services. But, we do want to showcase this around the world, and to do that, is it just Intel people or is it people buying the drones? That's a question to be solved in the future, but I definitely do see a path where a lot of people can reach this technology and this can replace fireworks or enhance fireworks or change how people are using lights in the sky.


What, if any, application does Intel potentially see for the tech for these drones beyond light shows, whether that's package delivery or military or something else?

Yeah. Why is intel doing light shows? If you expand the lens a bit, Intel is focused on commercial drones. So we have an Intel Falcon 8+, a multi-rotor drone, as well as Sirius Pro fixed-wing drones, and we're focused on different industries and agriculture, construction, oil and gas inspection.

What light shows are part of in this larger picture is, we're adding new innovations to light shows that we can definitely implement into the commercial space. For instance, the multiple drone per pilot technology. If you're trying to inspect a bridge, or if you have a search-and-rescue mission, would you rather have one drone searching for you or multiple drones, a fleet of drones searching for you or for a lost hiker? So that multiple-drones-per-pilot technology is crucial for expanding and enhancing the commercial space.

Another example of that and the innovations that are brought into the light shows that can be expanded into the commercial space is the indoor location technology. Right now, a lot of these drones use GPS and to get more precision, they'll add a whole bunch of additional sensors into the drone for outdoor spaces. But for GPS-denied areas or indoor buildings, if there are inspections to be done in an airplane hangar, or if you're in a warehouse and you want to use a drone for a warehouse inspection, you need that indoor location technology that Intel's created to be able to fly in there.

You'll see it in our indoor light shows, but that technology--and in our outdoor light shows with the technology and innovation that the engineers have created--can really be expanded into different segments in the commercial space. I think that's crucial to make sure that drones are being used and being more efficiently so that they can analyze the data from the payload, thermal sensors or SLR high-res photos to stitch a 3-D map to make it easier for people like you and me to understand if there's a crack on the wall or on the bridge or if a cell tower needs to be fixed. It's making it easier for us to be more efficient in our day-to-day job.


(This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.)

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