Are Drones Coming to a Theme Park Near You?

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Drone Puppet

Earlier this year, Amazon made headlines with the announcement that it was considering using drones to make fast deliveries to customers. Suddenly, visions of Jetsons-like robot couriers were swirling in our heads. Excitingly, drones may soon be coming to a theme park near you. The Walt Disney Company, through Disney Enterprises Inc., has filed an application for patents that would allow them to use drones in putting on shows and entertainment events at parks.

According to the recently filed patents, UAV-related technology is at the center of the proposed systems. UAV stands for unmanned aerial vehicle, which is more commonly known as a drone. The way that drones work is simple. These airborne vehicles have no onboard pilot. Instead, they’re controlled remotely through a combination of on-vehicle computers and human pilots manually driving them from remote stations on the ground.

UAV-Assisted Character

While the most common association with the term drone evokes images of the military, UAVs are already being used in a variety of commercial and other non-military settings. Drones are regularly part of aerial surveillance and remote sensing projects, which use the vehicles for purposes as diverse as following wildlife migrations and monitoring seismic activity associated with earthquakes. UAVs are also being leveraged in the film industry and sports. Remote, flying cameras film specific scenes in movies. They even played a role in recording and photographing events at the Sochi Olympics, such as skiing and snowboarding.

Drones allow the cameras to get closer to whatever they’re filming than a camera that’s on a rig would be able to. The commercial use of drones is not without concerns, including privacy and airspace safety. In June of this year, the Motion Picture Association of America filed a petition with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for approval in using drones on a wider scale in films. The US Congress has set a deadline for the FAA to determine rules for the commercial use of drones by 2015.

Drone Projection

In anticipation of the new opportunities that these new regulations will open, Disney is jumping to the forefront. Their proposed patents take three different approaches to using drones at theme parks.

Flixels: This patent focuses on large, aerial displays. As Disney states in the patent, “In the entertainment industry, there are many applications where it is desirable to provide an aerial display. For example, an amusement park may have a lagoon or other open space over which it is desired to present a display to entertain visitors. In another example, massively large aerial displays may be presented at sport stadiums or other venues to celebrate holidays such as New Year’s Day throughout the world and the 4th of July in the United States.”

The large aerial displays will be composed of individual UAVs. “Each of these UAVs with its display payload may be thought of as a floating pixel or “flixel” that when combined provides a very large display screen or aerial display that may be three dimensional and may change over time as the UAVs move in the display air space and as the payloads operate to change their display (e.g., change color).” The UAV-based systems would potentially replace some of those that we currently see at theme parks, including fireworks and fountains.

Drones Above Castle

Aerial Projection Screens: The second patent explores the use of drones to create floating screens and supporting systems needed for projection shows. As an example, the patent describes “a Symphony of Lights is a synchronized light and laser multimedia display that uses the exterior surfaces of forty-four buildings on both sides of the Victoria Harbor of Hong Kong for projection surfaces to create imagery that is accompanied by music. This large scale display has attracted over 4 million visitors and is held every night for over ten minutes.”

However, many of these shows rely at least in part in projecting onto building surfaces which creates limitations. It concludes with the need to develop new technologies that enable better innovation “for generating aerial displays such as a display involving projection of light and images into or out of the sky or an air space above an audience of spectators.”

Aerial Puppetry: The third patent explores the use of UAVs to handle the movements of large marionettes or puppets. The system “includes a marionette with a body and articulatable appendages attached to the body. The body and appendages are supported with tether lines extending between the marionette and the UAVs. Then, during a display time period, the UAVs concurrently execute the flight plans to position and articulate the marionette within a display air space.”

In other words, a small army of drones could be used to articulate and move large scale characters through a closely choreographed show.

Disney’s proposed use of drones opens up countless new possibilities. By integrating UAVs into their engineering, design, and theming, they’re providing solutions to specific issues. Drones stand to make shows more coordinated and repeatable, less subject to human error, and easier to modify for different themes, seasons, and environments. It remains to be seen how the public will react to these new systems or how they’ll be truly integrated, but one thing’s for certain. The latest patents underscore Disney’s commitment to pushing innovation through technology, and are the next exciting development in a series of changes that most recently included the MyMagic+ bracelets.

Image sources: Images belong to Disney, via PatentDocs


One response to “Are Drones Coming to a Theme Park Near You?”

  1. Interesting article. This is something we worked on some years ago but then dismissed due to the safety issues so will be intrigued to see how Disney resolves them.

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