A World First for Intel


An interactive drone experience was one of the most popular attractions at the 2015 Vivid Light Festival in Sydney.

The Game of Drones installation at Martin Place featured a 6m cylindrical drone cage. Members of the public were invited to fly drones using Intel's latest tablet. Clever electronics created geofences so drones wouldn’t crash into each other, or crash into the cage. How this was achieved was a world first.

Early in 2015 Intel approached UAV specialists Droneheadz to come up with concepts for a drone display that could demonstrate the power of its microprocessors. A fully automated drone display was one option; another was fitting cameras to the drones for first person view, but at night-time the video quality would not have been high enough. The final option of the hands-on drone flying experience was chosen because it included the most interaction with consumers.

In researching these concepts, mechatronic and robotic engineers were contacted from around the world to determine what could be done in the limited time available. As it turned out, the right team was local; Newcastle-based company Robotic Systems was programming drones to fly within a localisation system that would be perfect for the installation. After many long meetings and some crucial R&D, Intel approved. The countdown was on, but only eight weeks remained until the launch date.

463A61211The drones chosen for the project were Lumenier Danaus quadcopters. They featured closed propeller airframes and at a take-off weight of 700 grams, and they could fly for 4-6 minutes with the right configuration and battery set-up. Each had to be fitted with hi powered, colourful LED lights creating movement and excitement, an aerial display of light – after all, it was Vivid.

Parts were ordered for eight drones and the build took its toll over a few long days. After flight testing each one, they were delivered to Robotic Systems' warehouse laboratory in Newcastle for the installation of the localisation technology. The additional hardware enabled each drone's position to be calculated accurately, controlled via a tablet app in conjunction with proprietary ground station software, all run on Intel processors. The automated system would override the pilot, diverting the drone away from an obstacle if a collision was imminent. (See Box How Crashes Were Avoided)

Meanwhile Liveworks, veterans of Vivid and Intel’s activation partner, had engineers build the cage to strict specifications as required by CASA and then readied it for testing in an empty Sydney warehouse.

There were many conversations with CASA about what might be permitted and definitely what would not. Even after Intel had given the green light there was extensive toing and froing with the team at CASA UAV before the final Safety Case and the application for flight authorisation was thrashed out and deemed ok.

The result, a 26-page document covering everything from the design and structure of the cage to the flight control systems, the type of drones to be used and the involvement of the public; plus of course, all of the safety considerations, risk assessments, risk mitigation, lengthy flight procedures and the assignment of responsibility in case 'the drone hit the fan'. Permission was given to Operate within the movement area of two helicopter landing zones (at RPA Hospital, Camperdown and Victoria Barracks, Paddington), and an Exemption for Night Operations. It didn’t stop there. There was also an Exemption to Operate within 30m of People, and an Exemption for an RPAV to be Operated by Participants or Non-Licensed persons of the Public of all ages. The Droneheadz Operations Manual also needed multiple variations to be approved for this event.

Back at the lab, testing had continued, refining the code that kept the drone localised, designing and 3D printing parts to house sonar and optical flow sensors, trying to find the best balance between a battery’s power and weight, what size would give the longest flight time but still power all the added electronics and LED lighting whilst not interfere with flight characteristics.

In a blink it was the week prior to the event, so the pace quickened. Robotic Systems moved operations to Sydney for final testing inside the cage. Everyone was feeling the crunch of showtime looming, it was all hands on deck. There was more than a few all nighters problem solving, making sure the equipment was ready for its debut.

463A40611One day to go, and everything was moved again into its final location at Martin Place. Avante Guard Events had cage craned in and Lighting Tech Industries went to work installing strip LEDs, proximity triggered fx and rocking’ PA all chased to sequence from software. Next, the control room; Built and filled with computers, a battery charge station and an onsite workshop. Manned by Robotics engineers, they were the 'Air Traffic Control' viewing the entire installation, monitoring the Intel computers and systems that controlled the drones.

Liveworks had stepped up and created some amazing backlit Intel drone cage signage with branding. They did a great job with the overall look of the installation, also they co-ordinated the Intel brand ambassadors, employed and managed teams of volunteers to assist with crowd control. They designed up with some pretty cool jackets, Intel hoodies that lit up neon blue, think TRON the movie, and was ready with a team of fresh young faces for the event. In total more than 40 people helped make it happen, including ten from Droneheadz, four from Robotics Systems, five from Liveworks, two from LTI, the construction crews not to mention Intel’s entire marketing department and a small army of festival volunteers.

Finally launch day arrived, and it of course it bloody rained! Most of Vivid was a washout that day. The drones were all packed up and put away. Day two was dry, finally, the drones flew all day, and the remaining 17 days of the event, letting public fly a drone or stare in awe at the pretty flying lights.

“Once we were operating, though, more challenges became apparent,” said Droneheadz director Craig Newlyn. “There were technical hurdles to overcome, not just with the wind but also the downwash from other drones whilst trying to avoid collisions and the cage walls.

“The biggest obstacle by far was the programming of the drones, and the limited time Robotic Systems had to develop the code. It was achieved in a time frame that international drone research laboratories said was too short to be possible. But we managed it and created a world first in design and implementation,” he added.

“Another challenge was keeping batteries charged. It was a full time job changing batteries over in the bank charger. We were charging 12 batteries at a time.

“Maintaining the drones was constant as well. We had a 3D printer working overtime to manufacture and replace parts needed to get downed drones back into the cage.”

The show ran for six hours a night, with thousands of members of the public able fly the Intel drones during the event. Many thousands more were intrigued by the lights, the show, the crashes, the music and the excitement, fascinated by the buzzing drones doing battle in the arena.

“The installation was quite a spectacle and with their cute LED antennas it looked like a big jar full of coloured fireflies,” said Newlyn. “Huge groups of people gathered around waiting for each session to start.

“Most popular of course were the crashes. Wind was unpredictable and Martin Place being a wind tunnel at times it was inevitable that we had a few crashes, which always caused the crowd to cheer, they loved 'em.”

Why Intel is into Droens

Intel is the world’s largest manufacturer of microprocessors for PCs, but the PC market is stalling. Can drones help fill the gap? Intel hopes so. In November 2014 Intel invested in the drone aerial data company PrecisionHawk. In April this year they bought into the Silicon Valley drone venture Airware. And in August they invested $60 million in Hong Kong drone manufacturer Yuneeq. They are also into virtual reality, augmented reality and eye-tracking technology – a nice fit with drones.

Intel’s biggest news of late is ‘Real Sense’ a new technology that allows a computer to see the world in 3D through a visual sensor. A drone fitted with multiple sensors that are effectively eyes was displayed at CES 2015 and it was demonstrated using Intel processors and Firefly drones so they could autonomously ‘Sense and Avoid’ objects in their path, avoiding the chance of a collision without input from the pilot. This is all done without GPS or a motion capture system. You can even jump out in front of the drone and it will adapt in real time. Truly amazing stuff, Sky net is getting closer.

Expect more. Intel Capital invests hundreds of millions annually in tech start-ups around the globe.

How Crashes Were Avoided 

With Martin Place being in the middle of skyscrapers, the area was a GPS-denied environment, meaning the drones location could not be identified by satellite. Even if it was available, GPS wouldn’t give an accurate enough reading. The solution was a Radio Wave Time Differential Localisation System, A system using radio waves being sent from sensors positioned around the cage and then sent to and from each drone, enabling their positioning to be calculated by triangulation. Signals from the drones were transmitted to four ‘anchor’ transmitters around the cage, and re-transmitted to the ground station.

The signals were processed on Intel Processors by Robotic Systems’ TrackX Localisation System to provide real-time three-dimensional positioning for each drone to an accuracy of less than 10cm on all axes. Using time-of-flight information it could simultaneously locate multiple drones at a rate of 15Hz.

As the users flew the drones around the enclosure using Intel tablets, the ground station performed the role of air traffic control. Using TrackX, the ground station calculated the trajectory of all aircraft and overrode the flight controllers when necessary to prevent collisions. This ‘sense and avoid’ process created the visual effect of multiple drones ‘battling’, resulting in a dynamic display of bright lights and impressive manoeuvres.


Manufacturer: Lumenier
Model: Danaus Quadcopter
Size: 250mm
MTOW: 580g

Electronic Speed Controllers

Manufacturer: ZTW
Series: Blue Series
Battery (Cell Lipo): 2-4S
Continuous Current: 12A
Burst Current: 16A / 10sec


Manufacturer: HQ Propellers
Composition: Nylon carbon fibre
Length: 5 inches
Pitch: 3 inches


Manufacturer: T-Motor
Series: Navigator MN1806
KV: 2300
Max Continuous Power (W): 150W