When drones become pixels

drone in sky
With drones being used for everything from photography to military applications, the latest drone trend involves flying dozens and sometimes hundreds in unison to create “pixels” in the sky writes Jordan News columnist Jean-Claude Elias. (Photo: Unsplash)
If many of digital technology’s aspects are impressive, some are more spectacular than the others. Enter the modern, magnificent flying drones.اضافة اعلان

Whereas some are mere remote-controlled toys that you can buy for less than JD100 and that won’t really fly too far, professional models would cost thousands and will do wonders, more particularly in terms of the aerial photography that we have become accustomed to over the last few years. And we are only talking civil applications here, not military ones.

Incredible as it may sound, the concept goes back to 1917 when Charles Kettering in Ohio invented an unmanned, flying aircraft he named the Kettering Aerial Torpedo. Needless to say it had very little in common with today’s models in every single aspect: weight, flying range, price, controls, cost, functionality, etc. And of course, it was all analogue, not digital at all!

Design slow progress, technical improvements continued — mainly with the digital revolution — until a real breakthrough came circa the late 1990s, with the first commercially and digitally controlled, affordable units we know today.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), as they are generically referred to, are now everywhere. Just carefully watch videos or stills of all kinds shot after 2000, be it news contents, documentaries, advertisements, feature movies, YouTube music videos, amateur productions, and the like, and you can easily tell that UAVs have been used to take the beautiful shots that would have been unthinkable, or at least terribly expensive and complex, just a few years ago.

The newest and most spectacular drone application, however, consists of flying a good number of these beauties at the same time, in a way that the resulting shape of all the units flying together creates a drawing or a specific pattern. Each drone plays the role of a dot, of a pixel in a way, to form the whole. This is often done at night, with illuminated drones and different colored lights, for a stronger visual impact on those watching from the ground.

This is possible only thanks to the advanced digital, accurate remote controls that are used to fly the engines. The functionality that lets the operator easily maintain stationary flight (i.e. like a helicopter), or more precisely to keep it in a very precise position in the sky, is essential here. The set of single remotes is then grouped and controlled by a computer to build an image. The combined notions of networking and wireless connectivity are absolutely crucial in this specific field of application.

Once the system is designed and set, the rest is child’s play — well, almost. For once you are given the possibility; the power, to treat and to handle a drone like you can a pixel in a photograph (think Photoshop), the sky is the limit — no pun intended here. After a certain point it becomes “simple” computer programming.

Two weeks ago, 1,500 drones took off and were grouped together in Shanghai’s sky to form a stunningly cinematic QR code. Beyond the unprecedented, extraordinary visual display, the performance was such that you could actually scan the sci-fi QR code and read it with your smartphone from the ground, as easily as if it were printed on a box of cereal sitting on your table. Promotional impact and advertising cannot get more innovative and effective.

While some are using the multi-drone system to generate paintings or fixed images in the skies, others are creating more challenging, dynamically animated shapes, a kind of action movie where a set of drones “reshape” to become something totally different, in real time. Again, it is the possibility to control the ensemble digitally, and to program the units like pixels that lets you do the trick.

Drones have become common tools for professional filmmakers and photographers. The average price found on the well-known B&H online platform, for a reasonably-good model, is in the range of JD2,000.

Operating a drone in Jordan is legal but, understandably, is subject to regulations. According to the Jordan Civil Aviation Regulatory Commission you can submit an application through their site to obtain authorization to own or to operate a drone.

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