Intel Choreographed 1,200 Drones for the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony

It's going for a world record

The drones were choreographed to soar in the shape of the Olympic rings. Intel
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The Olympics put human abilities on display, but for this year’s Winter Olympics, Intel is displaying the capabilities of technology.

For the opening ceremony of the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Intel flew more than 1,200 drones, breaking its own world record for most drones flown at the same time and choreographing them to soar in the shape of a snowboarder, a dove and of course the Olympic rings. NBC will air the performance, which was actually filmed in South Korea in December, during tonight’s prime-time rebroadcast of the event.

“Since fireworks in the seventh or eighth century, there has been no alternative option,” Anil Nanduri, vp and general manager of Intel’s drone division, told Adweek. “With drones, you have the ability to fly programmable lights in the city with precision.”

Intel’s display comes after months of preparation both in the U.S. and South Korea. To pull off the performance, Intel shipped all of the equipment to South Korea in late October and early November for a December flight.

Using Intel’s 3-D animator tools and simulation software, the company choreographed the flight patterns and coded the drones to display a fraction of their possible 4 billion color combinations. As the artists programmed different patterns and lights, the software showed exactly how that would look in the sky without a single drone taking off. For example, the system doesn’t let any two drones exist in the same location.

Depending on the complexity of a given pattern, the process can take between a few minutes and several weeks. In this case, Intel spent several months. After all the planning, the actual programming of the drones is fairly fast, taking just 10 or 15 minutes before they’re ready to fly.

Hundreds of drones can take off from a fairly small space. Nanduri said a group of 300 needs about as much room as half a tennis court. Once they are airborne, the computer places each one where it needs to be.

“You’ve got to think of what the Intel Shooting Star system is designed for, and it’s one thing: to light up the night sky,” Nanduri said.

It isn’t the first time Intel has used a major event to showcase its drones. For last year’s Super Bowl, Intel collaborated with Lady Gaga to fly a formation in the shape of a flag behind the pop star during the halftime show. The year before that, it put on a show in Florida at the Walt Disney Resort. That same year, it achieved the previous world record by flying 500 drones in Germany.

The drones aren’t just about creating a digital ballet in the sky. In addition to entertainment, Intel is creating them for more practical uses such as search-and-rescue operations and commercial inspections. Similar technologies are used to operate larger drones big enough to carry people.

But while it’s started to offer more commercial uses, much of the Light Star System is still focused on entertainment. Since its debut, the system has been used for more than 130 shows in the U.S., Asia and other countries.

“The record is one thing,” Nanduri said. “It’s fun to have them, but the show experience is not measured by the size of the fleet.”

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.