500 Intel drones dance in the night sky

Intel's new Shooting Star Drone is the latest UAV announcement from a company that is better known for its processors. The VP and GM of Intel's UAV Segment explains why drones fit perfectly into the company's global strategy.

Intel is getting serious about drones, with a string of announcements about unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology. The company is known best for its processors, but the Internet of Things makes computers harder to recognize. While yesterday's computing was done in a heavy rectangular box, today's processing takes place in everyday objects and tiny gadgets.

Drones are no exception. "We see them as flying computers," Anil Nanduri tells ZDNet. He is Vice President and General Manager of Intel's UAV Segment.

Today Intel unveiled its latest creation: The Intel Shooting Star Drone. Nanduri says:

Think of it not just as a drone, but as a fleet of drones. It's targeted and specially designed for a light show, and using that system we've already set a new Guinness World Record of 500 drones simultaneously flying.

The Shooting Star system is designed for light shows, so it will initially be used for entertainment, such as shows as theme parks, sports stadiums, and large public events (Fourth of July, New Year's Eve, etc.). The show is a bit like battery-powered fireworks, but with Intel's brains behind the operation, fancy animation can be created in just a few days.

Each quadcopter weighs just over half a pound, with built-in LED lights that can create more than 4 billion color combinations. The system's algorithms determine where drones should be placed and optimize the flight path. An entire fleet of hundreds of drones can be controlled by a single computer.

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PHorlbeck

The drones include safety features such as propeller cages and geofencing, and they are so lightweight that Nanduri says he didn't even notice when one landed on his head when he stood in the middle of a fleet's landing zone during testing.

In the future, Intel's UAV fleets could also be used for more serious pursuits, such as automated building and utility inspections or search and rescue missions.

The 500-drone demonstration (and new world record) took place in Germany, but similar drone light shows could be coming to the United States soon. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)'s new Part 107 commercial drone rules normally prohibit this kind of application, but Intel received a waiver that allows one pilot to be in charge of multiple drones, even while flying at night.

Coordinating multiple flying robots is not easy, and swarm robotics is still an emerging technology. Nanduri says that it was particularly challenging for Intel's drone team to manage multiple systems so they don't collide with each other.

"So it's not just about a record in terms of the number," he says, "but also the complexity of getting that done and having the system to be able to do that with a single click of a button. We've designed all the software, all the algorithms, everything that we need to manage that in house."

Shooting Star is just the latest drone-related announcement from Intel. Earlier this week, Intel announced the acquisition of MAVinci GmbH -- a startup that specializes in fixed wing drone technology and flight-planning software for commercial use. In October, the company launched its first commercial drone, the Intel Falcon 8+ . And at the beginning of the year, Intel acquired German drone maker Ascending Technologies.

Now that the FAA is starting to loosen restrictions on commercial drones, these flying robots are being used for many different applications. The result, says Nanduri, is that the drones themselves are becoming smarter, which requires significant computing power.

Additionally, he explains, "There's tons of data that needs to be processed, which is going to drive more computing requirements. And anything that requires more computing requirements fits very well with the Intel strategy."

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