Dance Show The Machines Features Dancers and Programmed Flying Drones

Dance show “The Machines” just premiered in Philadelphia, USA featuring 6 dancers interacting with 6 programmed drones. 

Artistic director and choreographer David Parsons of Parsons Dance, Philadelphia’s Drexel University’s Expressive and Creative Interaction Technologies Center (ExCITe) and Westphal College of Media Arts & Design have produced a new dance show, “The Machines“,  featuring programmed drones.

The show premiered in the Prince Theater in Philadelphia, USA on Dec. 7, 2016:

The idea of using drones in the show initially came from the desire of Parson to explore the intersections of technology and dance and his interest in robotics. As Parsons told Billy Penn in a really interesting piece on the integration of drones in the show:

“I wanted to explore the evolution of man and machine and I thought what better way than with flying robotics? It’s always interesting to get artists and scientists to work together and to be reminded that we’re all creators”.

The multidisciplinary collaboration between the choreographer and the engineering and computer science students of the ExCITe Center of the Drexel University, a private research university with three campuses in Philadelphia, brought life to the show.

One of the challenges of the Center was to keep the budget low – other shows integrating drones and dance (such as Cirque Du Soleil’s Paramour, performing on Broadway), or even just adopting drones for entertainment (such as Disney’s latest show in Orlando) have an extremely high cost which would have been prohibitive for this production.

Drones used in this show have been built ad hoc by the ExCITe Center for a cost of less than $500 each, constructed using inexpensive 3D printed components and cutting-edge materials, such as carbon fiber-infused plastic, making replacement parts easy and inexpensive to fabricate.

Other challenges were of a technical nature. For example, how to make the drones move in the space without crashing and how to manage the flights in the simplest and safest way possible.

Each drone has five distinct infrared detectors that interact with a series of infrared cameras around the perimeter of the stage, sensing and mapping each detector as it moves through the space. The ExCITE Center also built a custom software for optimal control and precision flying of multiple drones simultaneously.

“There is no existing system that makes it easy to use drones within a theater,” said Youngmoo Kim, PhD, director of the ExCITe Center and an associate professor in the College of Engineering, in an article on the show published on Drexel University’s website.

“We needed to develop custom drones and software to achieve the type of expressive movement and flexibility envisioned by David Parsons. This required integrating expertise from many disciplines, from engineering and computing to technical theater, and these efforts highlight the transdisciplinary and entrepreneurial mission of our university.”

Once the drones have been finalized, the design will be open-sourced so that other researchers can use and build upon it, whether for other forms of artistic expression or just for inexpensive programmable drone testing, reports Billy Penn.

(Image credits: Parsons Dance)