Cirque du Soleil is no stranger to mind-boggling acts. But getting 8 drones to fly in sync with each other in a routine every night on stage on Broadway? That’s a feat.
The Broadway incarnation of Cirque du Soleil called “Paramour” included drones disguised as lampshades, dancing around the stage.
The drones, which performed in more than 398 live performances with more than 7,000 autonomous take-offs, flights and landings, were built by Swiss-based company Verity Studios.
I spoke with Verity Studios’s Christian Hugo Hoffmann, who is an AI and robotics enthusiast with a background and PhD in Economics and Strategy, currently responsible for strategy and finance at Verity Studios AG, to find out how they did it:
Drone Girl: This is incredible! How did you even get linked up with Cirque to begin with?
Christian Hoffmann: Cirque had experimented with robots in the past, but never flying ones before. Verity Studios’ founder Prof. D’Andrea has long been a fan of Cirque du Soleil, and their unique approach to marrying athleticism with art. He started working on a dynamic sculpture in 2004 which was inspired by a Cirque du Soleil performance called “The Statue Act”. It appeared that the folks at Cirque were also fans of his work, and they approached him for a lab visit at the Flying Machine Arena of Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) back in 2012 to explore possible collaborations.
DG: I love how the drones are disguised as lampshades. That’s so clever. How did that design come about?
CH: The lampshades were jointly designed and produced by Verity Studios and the creative team at Cirque in Montreal, the former paying special attention to fitting the quads with their costumes. This process was an iterative one.
DG: So the question that I’ve been MOST wanting to ask is…drones are loud! How do you compensate for noise so it’s not distracting to the audience?
CH: The performers sing while (the drones) are performing and dancing.
Verity’s other product is the Lucie micro drone, basically flying lights, which weigh less than 50g and are even more silent. For example, in a drone show for a corporate event, the Lucies effectively flew over the audience without them noticing the flying machines.
DG: I know you can’t give away TOO many secrets, but can you tell us how these all work?
CH: Placing intelligent, autonomous flying machines in live theater presents a multi-faceted challenge: creating a compelling performance with safety, reliability, and ease of operation. We need to create a compelling performance with safety, reliability, and ease of operation.
DG: I’m guessing the drones all are flying pre-programmed flights — there isn’t someone actually flying them, right?
CH: The drones navigate autonomously, piloting themselves, only supervised by a human operator. To navigate autonomously, these drones require a reliable method for determining their position in space.
DG: I was going to say, I’m guessing you’re not able to rely on GPS since the drones perform indoors.
CH: Since GPS is usually not available indoors, Verity Studios has built a proprietary indoor localization method.
DG: That has to be a huge undertaking!
CH: Accurate mobile robot localization is a key bottleneck for the (commercial) deployment of mobile robots. While robots navigating outdoors may use GPS to help localization, GPS does not allow navigation close to obstacles including tall buildings and does not allow navigation indoors. Verity’s localization system allows robots to accurately navigate in indoor and outdoor environments. They calculate a state estimate using full 6D pose (3D location + 3D orientation) estimation algorithms.
DG: And the question on a lot of people’s minds — are these things safe?
CH: They have a completely redundant design and can withstand any single point of failure. On top of that, Verity Studios’ drones also have fail-safe algorithms that permit controlled flight even after the loss or failure of any given component, including propeller, motors, battery, computer, etc. No other multicopters offer this level of reliability.
The only single point of failure is the carbon fiber frame. The frame’s specific strength is 12.5 times higher than that of stainless steel.
DG: I’m ready to watch some drones now! You can check it out the lampshades in action for a Cirque du Soleil video different performance (not part of Paramour) here: