“A conceptual spark alone doesn’t ignite a wildfire,” said Horst Hörtner, director of the Ars Electronica Futurelab and the project crew’s chief drone pilot. Intensive research on UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) led to contact with the leading institutions in this field: the ETH–Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH-Zürich) and the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASPlab. Lengthy telephone conversations with staffers at both facilities as well as with Joe Paradiso of the MIT-Medialab led to the initial assessment that the undertaking was not doable in the allotted time and with the available budget.
But the idea had its hook in deep. Tenacity and complete confidence in the technical excellence of the Ars Electronica Futurelab fueled its progress. The whole thing seemed to be far out of reach the first time Hörtner presented the idea to his staff. Already on board was his quadrocopter model of choice—the Hummingbird by Ascending Technologies.
At this point, momentum started to pick up—first, by getting in touch with Ascending. Daniel Gurdan, Ascending CEO and head of development: “The first time I heard about this inquiry, I figured this was the pipe dream of some kind of nut job. But when they displayed persistence and were still discussing the same plan the third time they contacted us, it was clear that they were really serious about this!”
The Linz crew’s level of commitment was underscored by the presentation of the first swarm simulator during one of the visits. Under the direction of Florian Berger, the crew developed a system capable of realistically coordinating the flight behavior of 50 of these quadrocopters including correcting for any position determination errors attributable to the GPS. Thus, the details of how to implement the idea were emerging:
There would be a ground command station (flight control) that communicated with each individual drone. They would all be constantly sending data about their current position, and flight control would react in real time to deviations from the ideal course. Each movement is thus specified by this server and all sequences of movements continuously checked to prevent collisions. If need be, the server could intervene to correct a flight path, recalculate all position data, send this revised data to all individual drones, etc.
Fotocredit Gregor Hartl
Andreas Jalsovec and his group developed a method of configuring the flight behavior of the swarm. The result was a 3D Studio Max grid in which—like in any 3D animation project—an unlimited number of points could be designated
The results of the animation including all of the light values were first input to the swarm simulator where they could be evaluated in WYSIWYG mode. This simulator’s user interface served as the basis of the flight control engine, the server that navigated the swarm according to the specifications of the design team’s animations. In order to make this happen at the necessary speed and without excessive delay (latency), Ars Electronica Futurelab staffers under Ben Ohlsen completely reconfigured the communication between the drones and flight control, and optimized it to the 2.4 GHz module that was being used.
How Do the Drone Get Their Light?
In order to appreciate this, you have to be aware that Ascending adapted the original Hummingbird in several ways especially for this project. Takeoff & landing maneuvers were released to enable the flight control, flight behavior was slightly modified, and, in a technical advance that’s already made it to serial production, there’s an upgraded software library to improve communication between the high-level and low-level CPU, as well as the communication via SPI to the LED modules. Equipping the drones in this way enables them to replicate the light textures of the animations by Michael Mayr. Under the direction of the Ars Electronica Futurelab’s Michael Platz, additional key components were added: first and foremost, the LED module, the diffuser and the landing skids. Thus, the Swarm Hummingbirds differ significantly from their serial-production siblings.
In any case, these Swarm Hummingbirds are currently available for deployment at all sorts of other events!. We hope to be able to present this one-of-a-kind live experience to as many people as possible.
Where do we go from here?
Anyone familiar with the active, ambitious atelier-lab on the banks of Danube is already aware that this is just the beginning of a long-range flight. Where’s it headed? Priority has been given to the potential to tweak the details. And to crank up the numbers—after all, 50 are cool, but nowhere near as cool as 5,000 …
Nevertheless, Hörtner remains silent about which concrete developmental steps are actually getting the go-ahead: “That depends most strongly on the contents we can successfully get across with this. We’ve mastered the technical impediments. The next step is to explore the artistic capabilities and qualities of this new technology.”
The approach exceeds an idle graphical 2D or 3D display in real space. One possible application aims on the augmentation of real space by putting the pixels (spexels) in relation to the environment. By doing so, a planned highway bridge can be drawn into space on location.