LAS VEGAS—For most people flying a drone, it’s probably best advised to do so outside. But for some people—like managers of massive warehouses where items may be stored on two-story-high shelves—the prospect of a flying robot that can jet to the top to check on inventory is probably a welcomed one.
And then there are other, less practical reasons for flying a drone indoors, too. Like what happened at the end of Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s keynote address on Sunday night at CES, the annual sprawling tech trade show that descends on Las Vegas this week.* After opening with a promise to patch the gaping security holes recently discovered in Intel’s chips that left most of the world’s computers vulnerable to hackers, the company showed off a fleet of 100 new tiny drones, Shooting Star Minis, that flew over a packed house at the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino.
The drones were a variation on Intel’s Shooting Star drone, which the company unveiled back in 2016. Hundreds of Shooting Stars famously flew above Lady Gaga at the 2017 Super Bowl halftime show.
The new Shooting Star Mini drone works much like the original Shooting Star. Hundreds of drones fly in unison, all controlled by a single operator. Only with the Mini, the drones are even smaller and can fly indoors.
The company actually set a new Guinness World Records on Sunday before the keynote performance for flying the most number of drones from a single computer indoors. Similarly, Intel set a world record in 2016 for flying 500 Shooting Stars simultaneously in Hamburg, Germany.
The Shooting Star Mini drones are quadcopters with caged propellers and are extremely small and lightweight. So if they do happen to fall from the sky, the idea is that they won’t cause too much damage.
Since the drones are made to operate indoors, they don’t require GPS to sense their location, like the regular Shooting Stars do. GPS doesn’t work so well inside. So instead, they use a new location detection system Intel whipped up to help the flying robots navigate under a roof. The drones lack collision avoidance sensors and they don’t communicate with one anotherr—all the work is done from a single operator at a computer and the flight patterns are preplanned.
Intel isn’t the only company working to bring drones indoors. Qualcomm has its Snapdragon Flight Drone Platform, which the company showed off at CES last year. Unlike the Shooting Stars, the drone tech from Qualcomm aims to tackle more practical applications, like navigating inside a collapsed building, inspecting an airplane in a hangar, or the aforementioned need to scale shelving at a warehouse. The Snapdragon platform allows a drone to learn about its environment as it flies and create a flight path without using GPS.
Like so many things featured at CES, the Intel Shooting Star Mini isn’t for sale. The idea, rather, is to use the tech for professional light shows, meaning they should be operated by people who know what they’re doing—not some drone newbie who may crash the mini quadcopter into a tree.
*Correction, Jan. 9, 2018: This post originally misspelled Brian Krzanich’s last name.
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