The Future is Wow: Theme Park Drones Take Flight

September 11, 2014

The Mouse is changing the themed entertainment game again.  Or is he?

As reported in news outlets throughout the world, Disney Enterprises recently published its 2013 patent applications for three different drone technologies. The first, which could affectionately be called the “Geppetto” drone, involves a marionette with “articulatable appendages” supported from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) by tether lines.  The second consists of a multitude of UAVs positioning a flexible projection screen in the air.  And the third is a system for UAVs to provide a synchronized aerial display with floating pixels (‘or flixels’).” Think of a fireworks show comprised of drones with lights instead of pyrotechnics.

"Geppetto" drone. Image source: Patentdocs.

For these patents, Disney Enterprises has literally drawn on necessity as the mother of invention.  For example, they argue that fireworks, in addition to being a safety hazard, are unpredictable, making it hard to create a repeatable show.  Projection shows on water screens or fountains are limited by how far the water can reach.  And aircraft-based displays (such as blimps dragging banners) are limited in size and the availability of necessary equipment.  According to the patent application, “the inventors recognized that presently there are no mechanisms for creating very large aerials such as a display that is reusable/repeatable, dynamic and interactive.”

Projection screen drone. Image source: Patentdocs.

But before we dive into the pros, cons and limitations of Disney’s plans, let’s take a step back and define what a drone is, learn how its been used so far, and discover how others may have already beaten Disney to the drone punch.

What is a Drone, and How Are They Used?

The FAA would prefer that we use the term “unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)” or “remotely piloted aircraft”. (But we don’t work for the FAA, so for the purposes of this blog post, we’ll use the term “drone”.)  A drone is an aircraft controlled by computers or an external operator on the ground.  Historically, they have been used in areas “too dull, dirty or dangerous” for manned aircraft and have been primarily employed by the military.  The concept of a drone dates back to the mid-1800s, but the drones we think of today were developed in the 1900s for military target practice, and they have been used in various conflicts throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Currently, the military and the CIA operate two separate permanent drone programs, the former housed only where troops are stationed and the latter in more clandestine, extra-military areas. In addition to the US, over 50 countries employ drones for military and civic uses.

But drones are more than just war machines.  In CNN’s article, “15 Ways Drones Will Change Your Life”, the news outlet outlines the more pacifist and humanitarian uses of drones both now and in the future.  Drones can and plan to be applied to such diverse areas as search and rescue, crops surveying, shepherding, animal conservation (i.e., monitoring poaching), delivering medical supplies to remote regions, forest fire detection and disaster relief.  MIT is even using drones as guides to help Harvard students maneuver its meandering campus. And drones equipped with GoPros are opening new avenues for photography and filmography.

The American Alliance of Museums chronicled potential cultural uses for drones in its 2014 Trendswatch report and demonstrated drone technology live at its 2014 Annual Museum and MuseumExpo.  According to Trendswatch editor Elizabeth Merrill, these aerial vehicles could help document the condition of historic and heritage buildings, giving patrons an unprecedented view inside and outside these institutions.  Our neighbors at the Cincinnati Museum Center tested that theory, producing a “Union Terminal From the Air” video in anticipation of its Save the Icons levy campaign. In addition to documenting building conditions, with their ability to reach into previously unreachable places, drones have the potential to provide glimpses into such remote areas as archeological sites, archival artwork collections, and zoological habitats (“National Zoo Panda Drone”, anyone?).

Drones as Big Business

But according to a recent BI Intelligence report, “12% of an estimated $98 million in cumulative global spending on aerial drones over the next decade will be for commercial purposes.”  Technology juggernauts Amazon and Google are already poised to be first in line for a slice of the drone pie.  As a 2013 New York Times article quipped, “Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s Chief Executive, is planning to take what looks like a barbecue grill, attach eight propellers and a basket to it and use it to deliver small items to people’s houses.”  Bezos claims that the Amazon Prime Air “octo-copter” could one day deliver packages up to 5 pounds to customers within a ten-mile radius of a delivery center in about a half an hour. Amazon’s website boasts that one day Prime Air vehicles will be as ubiquitous as mail trucks.

Amazon Prime Air.  Image source:

Meanwhile, Google is developing Project Wing, with a focus on delivering goods to remote areas.  Astro Teller, director of Google X, the company’s research wing, told The Atlantic, “What excited us from the beginning is that if the right thing could find anybody just in the moment that they need it, the world might be a radically different place.” Their drone flies at an altitude of 130 to 200 feet.  It uses its rotors to take off, land and hover vertically, but it rotates 90 to fly horizontally. When it reaches its target destination, it lowers its payload down on a tether.  A sensor goes down with the payload so that the craft knows when to let down and lift the line.  Google has stressed that the Wing is in Beta and not a final product.  Further studies need to be done to assess how the Wing operates around possible obstructions, but at first blush, experts say its design makes it potentially faster and capable of longer ranges than Prime Air.

Future Possibilities, Current Limitations

Amazon’s website also claimed, “we’ll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place.”  Those regulations have proven to be the biggest obstacle, and they could make Disney a latecomer to the drone party.  Disney’s use of drones is currently prohibited by the FAA.  The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 sets a deadline of September 30, 2015 for the agency to establish regulations allowing for commercial drone use (the FAA currently requires non-recreational drone users to be sponsored by a public entity like a university or non-profit research association).  Even if the FAA achieves the 2015 deadline, successfully implementing the regulations could take several more years.  In the face of increasing criticism from the journalism and motion picture industries, the FAA agreed in August 2013 to grant licenses on a case-by-case basis, but according to a recent Forbes article, in the short term those licenses will most likely be given to commercial applications of existing drone technologies, and not the new technologies laid out in Disney’s patents.

Neopter.  Image source: Puy du Fou

In the meantime, Disney’s overseas competition is taking full advantage of fewer bureaucratic hurdles.  French theme park Puy Du Fou unveiled its Neopter drone on August 29 as part of Cinéscénie®, the park’s elaborate nighttime spectacle.  Developed by the park and Belgian company ACT Lighting Design, the Neopter is the first drone able to simultaneously fly within an aerial fleet without any intervention. Using GPS to locate itself in the air autonomously, it can perform synchronized choreography either in the air or immersed in water and can even operate in strenuous wind conditions. Each Neopter can carry a load of up to 6.6 pounds (3 kg), making a fleet capable of carrying sound, video, lighting, or sceneography (e.g., pyrotechnics). According to the Puy du Fou press release, this combination of nimbleness and hauling capability enables the Neopter to be both a “leading actor” and a “scenic carrier”.  ACT Lighting Design and Puy du Fou spent 12 months in development before being approved by the General Department of French Aviation.  They plan to deploy 50 drones in the coming months and market the Neopter to live shows around the world.  By having a marketable finished product in a country with freer UAV regulations, Puy du Fou and ACT have leapfrogged over Disney to become drone technology pioneers.

Despite Puy du Fou’s success, many questions remain about the use of drone technology.  One need only remember the “Miracle on the Hudson” to understand that something as innocent as a bird can bring down a large aircraft.  A single accident involving a drone crashing into a building, hitting a plane or dropping an object on a person below could cause a firestorm of negative publicity.  Privacy issues are another concern: nine US states have already passed laws restricting private and law enforcement drone use.  As UW law professor Ryan Calo shares in the CNN article, “drones make surveillance cheaper and easier, and when you do that, you can expect to see a lot more of it.” To many, drones are just another vehicle for Big Brother’s watchful eye.  And then there’s the practicality of it.  As one critic points out, how do you deliver something to an apartment dweller with no balcony or roof access in a skyscraper-laden city like New York or LA?

For supporters of drones, the technology means an avenue of opportunity, one that the United States is poised to see pass by: “the USA is losing $10 billion in potential economic impact for every year the FAA delays,” Gretchen West, Executive Vice President of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, tells CNN.  But for those able to explore this technology to its fullest, the possibilities for industries such as themed entertainment could be as limitless as the sky itself.

"Flixel" drone. Image source: Patentdocs.

Tags: Blog N Learn , Outside the Studio

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