Drones in Paramour: interview with Raffaello D'Andrea of Verity Studios

Raffaello D’Andrea of Verity Studios talks about the onstage drones in Paramour, the first Cirque Du Soleil Broadway show. Get the behind-the-scenes of this captivating performance.


Eight autonomous lampshades dance in the air to support the romantic moment when two characters declare their feelings for each other.

You would be forgiven for thinking of the Beauty and the Beast animation, but it’s actually a scene in Paramour, the first Broadway show created by Cirque Du Soleil, running at the Lyric Theatre in Manhattan, New York City.

And the lampshades are drones, designed by Zurich-based Verity Studios, which fly following automated pathways in the air.

We had mentioned in an earlier blog the experimental collaboration between Cirque and Verity Studios, which resulted in the 2014 video “Sparked”, YouTube viral success and winner of the New York Drone Film Festival.

Following that experiment, Cirque Du Soleil and Verity Studios joined forces to take on an even more challenging task: make the drones a component of a live performance. The drones’ onstage performance in Paramour is another first for Broadway and the Cirque Du Soleil‘ shows.

In today’s Skytango’s feature, we talk with Verity Studios founder Raffaello D’Andrea.

Eclectic Canadian/Italian/Swiss engineer, artist, entrepreneur and professor at ETH Zurich, Raffaello is also a founder of Kiva Systems (now Amazon Robotics) and is the mind behind the Flying Machine Arena at ETH Zurich from which Verity Studios is a spinoff.

Raffaello explains what challenges they had to overcome to bring the drones to life on Broadway. He also offers his views on the growing trend of drones in entertainment and the implications of the technological developments in this sector for the adoption of drones in other commercial sectors.

Enjoy!


1. Ciao Raffaello! What does Verity Studios exactly do with drones and drone technology?

Verity Studios’ Synthetic Swarm allows the choreographed indoor flight of a large number of self-piloted drones. Motion and light effects of every drone can be precisely designed, extending the traditional palette of light, sound, stage effects, and human performers by simultaneously moving a multitude of flying objects along set choreographies in 3D space.


2. How did the collaboration between Verity Studios and Cirque Du Soleil start?

I have always been a fan of Cirque du Soleil, and their unique approach to marrying athleticism with art. I started working on a dynamic sculpture in 2004 which was inspired by a Cirque du Soleil performance called “The Statue Act”. It appears that the folks at Cirque were also fans of my work, and they approached me for a lab visit in 2012  to explore possible collaborations. We jointly created Sparked in 2014.


3. What are your contributions to the show Paramour?

From a technology perspective, we provided the positioning system and infrastructure that enables the autonomous flight of drones. We also provided all of the custom-designed flying machines.

From an artistic perspective, we designed the flight choreography and worked closely with the creation team at Cirque to identify and develop the motions that best expressed the emotional intent of the act in the show.


4. How much planning and time is required to get a show like this running?

A complex show like Paramour normally takes about two years to produce and execute. We would normally enter into discussions about one year before the opening. The bulk of our work takes place in the final 2 or 3 months prior to opening.

Verity Studio team working on the custom built drones for Cirque Du Soleil's Paramour show

Verity Studio team testing the fail-safe algorithms on the custom-built drones for Cirque Du Soleil’s Paramour show – @ Verity Studios


5. What were the main challenges of the Paramour project? Were they technical, operational, safety-related, bureaucratic etc?

It was a multi-faceted challenge to come up with a performance that was not only compelling to the audience, but also safe, reliable, and easy to operate by the stage crew.

However keep in mind that Verity Studios’ systems are fundamentally conceived for this purpose and so it should be no surprise that we succeeded on all fronts. Our flying machines have now performed over 250 successive shows without a single incident, and our role in the show is one of the most talked-about segments.

Routine maintenance check of the drones in Paramour

In the Lyric Theater, a technician performs a routine maintenance check of the drones in Paramour @ Verity Studios


6. Who took care of the permissions for using drones in Paramour, and was it difficult to get them? 

Being a relatively new industry, much remains unregulated, particularly with respect to the indoor use of drones. In each instance, we must make our case to the appropriate safety authorities or fire marshals to ensure that our setup meets their standards. This has not been a problem thus far as safety and reliability have always been a top priority at Verity Studios.


7. What kind of drones do you use in the show? Do you design and build them?

Our flying machines are all custom made. They have a completely redundant design and can withstand any single point of failure. The same applies to our localization system. Furthermore, our flying machines have fail-safe algorithms that permit controlled flight even after the failure of any given component, including propeller motors; no other drones can do this.


8. How do you manage the flight of the drones in the show?

The operation and management of the drones in Paramour are completely managed by their automation staff. They have been provided an operator’s console and have been trained thoroughly by Verity Studios. We provide ongoing technical support. The fundamental tasks consist of vehicle inspection, calibration, show operations, and battery management.

Management console of Verity Studios/Paramour drones

Management console of Verity Studios/Paramour drones, onstage at the Lyric Theater in New York – @ Verity Studios


9. Do the drones interact with each other in the show in real-time?

They don’t. Each drone has its own predefined trajectory which it follows independently. Our positioning system provides the timing signal that keeps them perfectly synced, and of course, our design tools ensure that all choreographies are collision free.


10. Did the performers have any difficulties with the drones?

Fundamentally the drones go out twice a day and perform their job identically each and every time. Their behavior is so consistent and predictable that people tend to become complacent around them. So the main challenge is maintaining a state of constant safety awareness among the cast. These are powerful machines after all.


11. What are the main technological innovations behind the drones in Paramour?

First and foremost is our indoor positioning system which permits the controlled autonomous flight of any number of drones with a degree of robustness that matches that of the entertainment industry. Then there are our fully redundant, fail-safe drones, capable of sustaining controlled flight after the failure of any single component. This combination of technologies makes for a degree of safety and reliability that is unparalleled.

 Testing Paramour's drone flight inside Verity Studios research center

Testing Paramour’s drone flight inside Verity Studios research center – @ Verity Studios


12. How many people are needed to control the operations of the drones in real-time?

Just one! The operation of the drones is performed by Paramour’s show automation specialist, among his many other tasks.


13. What safety measures do you put in place for the audience and performers?

The most fundamental safety measures, as I have previously discussed, are intrinsic to the design of the system and the flying machines. But there are several operational measures as well. There are human operated emergency stop buttons from two different viewpoints of the stage allowing them to halt the flight choreography at any moment there is perceived danger. Furthermore, the drones fly within a predefined flight safety envelope. The envelope is conceived such that in case of an emergency stop, a given drone can never have the momentum required to reach the audience. Stage actors are trained, of course, to take evasive action when an incident occurs (this has never happened).


14. How do you see drones in entertainment?

We see them principally as dramatic characters. Even in this very first generation, we are able to make our drones move in such a way that suggests intent and emotion. When staged with actors’ performance and a musical score we can achieve a form of anthropomorphism that recalls that which we experience in animation, with the phenomenal advantage that you are viewing it in the round. And, of course, it just gets better from here on. We also see tremendous potential in creating living, movable scenography.


15. Apart from the entertainment industry, what are the possible applications of the technologies you are developing?

We are passionate about applying our knowledge to the creative arts. But the obvious reality is that there are commercial sectors that offer possibilities on a much larger scale. Think of all the forms of robotics that have entered commercial and industrial processes over the past decades and then imagine which of those processes could be taken to a whole new level (no pun intended) if they were performed by untethered, autonomous flying machines, and how much more they could do. Perhaps this is where you will find us.


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Featured image credit: @ 2016, Cirque Du Soleil Theatrical. Photo by Richard Termine