Here at Future Tense, we’re on the record with our belief that no Super Bowl is complete unless it features jetpacks. In that respect—if in few others—Lady Gaga’s enthusiastic, inclusive halftime performance arguably disappointed.
Still, the production incorporated a compelling bit of contemporary technology: In a reportedly pre-recorded sequence, a swarm of 300 tightly coordinated drones lit up the sky, circling around one another in patterns choreographed tightly as anything happening on stage. While Gaga mugged at the camera, the devices came together, forming the shape of a massive American flag.*
As a tag at the end of the show made thuddingly clear, that display came courtesy of Intel, the company that developed and deployed the technology. The company and its collaborators sometimes refer to the individual devices as “spaxels,” a portmanteau of “space” and “pixels.” It’s a helpful term, in that it gets at what Intel is really up to here from a technological perspective. The system works much like an immensely complicated low-resolution computer monitor: Wired explains that each of the flying robots respond to a central computer, “oblivious to what the hundreds of machines around it are doing.”
The halftime performance comes on the heels of a handful of previous events in which Intel demonstrated the technology. The first notable production, held, Intel explains, at “a private, secure location” near Hamburg, Germany, in November 2015, involved 100 drones. Though artists had programmed out the devices’ flight patterns in advance, every 25 devices were also controlled by a single pilot. The company pared that back to a single pilot in a subsequent 100-drone performance in the United States in 2016, and then at an another with 500 drones later that year.
Intel’s drones, dubbed Shooting Stars by the company, resemble consumer quad-copters, but the devices it’s been using lately differ in a handful of key ways, including the addition of a cage around the helicopter blades, presumably against the eventuality that they might collide with one another. Since the tech that allows the drones to receive instructions is mostly hidden away in their chassis, the devices’ other dominant feature is a large LED light at the bottom. “All this drone can do is light up the sky, but this is something it can do really, really well,” says Daniel Gurdan, an engineer involved with the project, in a video from that recent 500-drone performance.
Though most of Intel’s prior productions took place at secluded outdoor venues, the company’s ambitions were already clear in its past promotional videos. “Our goal is to do this over stadiums, to do this over events that have large populations,” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich intones in one, over footage of the tightly coordinated robots expanding and contracting like the luminescent wings of some gargantuan angel.
Well, congratulations, Krzanich! You sort of did it.
It’s impossible to overstate the rhetorical importance of that accomplishment for Intel: The company regularly stresses that it has collaborated with the Federal Aviation Administration to receive exemptions for its airborne performances. Those efforts are of a piece with its other attempts to sway regulators, including a recent demonstration of drone technology on Capitol Hill. That Intel received permission to pull off such a feat in Houston, above a packed arena, is almost as impressive as the technological accomplishment, speaking to the legal progress it’s made.
Ultimately, though, the real goal of its Sunday night performance likely had as much (or more) to do with overcoming public discomfort as it did with swaying regulators. Almost every article about the show repeats the official Intel line, indicating, as Wired does, that these colorful devices “will one day revolutionize search-and-rescue, agriculture … and more.” For what it’s worth, academic drone researchers—unaffiliated with Intel—have described similar possibilities to me. But it’s worth noting that the Department of Defense has tested still-more sophisticated drone swarm systems that can be deployed from F/A-18 Hornets. While it’s generally important not to conflate consumer drones with military ones—the two share little more than a name—these related applications suggest the distinct technologies might be on a collision course.
For now, though, Intel would probably prefer we set such considerations and concerns aside. And what better way to calm us than to light up the sky up in the red, white, and blue of the American flag?
*Correction, Feb. 6, 2017: This post originally misstated that the drone sequence was performed live. It has been revised to reflect reporting that the drone sequence was prerecorded.