Disney's theme parks and entertainment shows are a popular vacation destination for many. One of Disney's ever present taglines is "Imagineering." With the Walt Disney Company recently being awarded a number of issued patents for future unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or UAS or drone) integration into its aerial shows, we took a deeper dive into one of the more recent patents, US 8,876,571 ("US '571") to see what Disney's "Imagineers" have been working on. While most UAV utilization has been military in nature, recent proposals include many commercial applications, such as search and rescue, agriculture, news and event coverage etc. Here we see Disney, an entertainment and experience innovator, embracing new drone technologies.
Aerial Display Shows will utilize Drones and be 'Engineered' for Consistency
For those of us fortunate enough to have experienced any of Disney's parks, we know there is a very industrial like consistency; characters arrive at a given location within the scheduled minute, Fastpasses ensure more people are moving throughout the park then waiting in line; etc. Disney's aerial shows will be no different - a major issue Disney's US '571 patent seeks to resolve is show consistency by using flocks of autonomous or remotely controlled UAVs which will have unique choreographies, implemented by individualized flight plans.
If Disney were to employ a number of human pilots to remotely fly the UAVs to the same choreography, over and over, it's likely that each show would be slightly different. By automating this process, Disney is ensuring consistency of its aerial displays. By patent protecting this technology and technology application, Disney may keep competitors (e.g., Universal Studios) aerial display shows "on the ground".
Marionette's Articulations will be Lifelike
Disney Patent Drawing / Credit: Walt Disney Company via USPTO
Disney's inventors cite that previous aerial displays were not able to "mimic the characters" due to technical limitations (e.g., size, weight etc.). In the US '571 patent, the inventors have eliminated this limitation by using a number of UAVs to control a single Marionette. Each UAV will be connected to a particular part of the Marionette and by each UAV having a unique flight plan, individual parts of the Marionette can be moved independently, allowing for potentially impressive demonstrations. See Figure 4 from the US '571 patent as an example.
A Ground Station will Rule
It's useful to note that smaller, lighter & more powerful flight controllers and other electronics (e.g., gyroscopes and accelerometers) are partial enablers of Disney's future in drones, especially those flight controllers allowing for autonomous (partial or full) operation. The other component of the technology; however, is Disney's ground control system integrated with the UAV flight controllers. As described in the US '571 patent, the ground control station is responsible for managing the aerial display by communicating with the UAVs, "during the show". In this way, the inventors are using the ground control station to ensure each individual UAV is operating according to both its flight plan and necessary safety precautions. For example, the inventors describe that if the ground control station determines a single UAV needs a correction, that the ground control station "provide safety-based commands or override/ correction commands to move the UAVs".
A quick patent search reveals that Disney has been awarded 5 granted UAV-oriented US patents, most of which were filed in the last few years. This suggests a relatively recent interest in using UAV technology for aerial shows. It will be interesting to follow where this technology is headed, and how Disney continues to innovate to bring imagination to life.
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