How a Swarm of Blinking Drones Ended Up in the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular

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If you haven’t seen the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes, you can probably picture the iconic line of dancers kicking in unison, like a salute to American entertainment from a century ago. Well, this year the show got a surprising update: drones.

Dozens of tiny autonomous quadcopters built by Intel float over the Rockettes during the finale of the new show, and the effect is almost magical. Each little drone is essentially an airborne LED light that, from the audience’s perspective, seems to blend in with the set before bursting out over the dancers. In the final minutes of thenear century-old show in Radio City Music Hall, the stage seems to come alive with flying robots. This sort of thing would have melted the brains of the folks who saw the first holiday show with the Rockettes back in 1933. Yet, here we are.


This is hardly the first time drones have been used as entertainment. Intel itself has been pioneering the technology in outdoor light shows for many years now and has racked up an impressive list of appearances at major events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics. Those quadcopters are larger and operate more like consumer drones in that they depend, in part, on GPS for positioning and navigation. The new palm-sized Intel Shooting Star Mini drone, however, is designed to work indoors, where it’s hard to reach satellites orbiting Earth. To overcome this, Intel designed an indoor location system and built the network within Radio City Music Hall. After the initial programming of the choreography, it takes a single operator to oversee the drone show.

The idea of coordinating an autonomous drone show using indoor GPS seems to be gaining popularity. It was just a couple months ago that Drake revealed drone backup dancers (of sorts) on his latest tour. That technology came from a Swiss company called Verity Studios that specializes in indoor drone shows, and their technology bears many resemblances to Intel’s new system.

The major difference between the Drake drone show and the Rockettes’ drone show is in the sheer complexity of the choreography. Whereas Drake’s drones floated around him on stage during a couple of songs in his set, the Rockettes’ drones are dealing with a lot more moving parts. The Christmas Spectacular is already a tech-heavy show with everything from a 3D video sequence to projections of graphics all around Radio City Music Hall. The introduction of the drones add a more physical component to the mix, since the quadcopters are flying around and above the 36 Rockettes. In order to make this work well, the company rehearsed with the Intel drones weeks ahead of time so that the Rockettes would know how the technology worked and how it would affect their show. Safety, Intel says, is a top priority. Even if a drone were to fall from the sky, it’s designed to be small enough and light enough not to cause any damage.


One’s left to wonder what the future of technology like this might hold. Intel’s drones could represent a new form of fireworks, something that’s both reusable, more environmentally friendly, and more versatile than the pyrotechnics that have come before it. While it’s demoed indoor drone shows at CES 2018 and for Pride Weekend in San Francisco, Intel says the Rockettes performance is the first of its kind, especially in a space like Radio City Music Hall.

At the very least, watching drones dancing with Rockettes is a hell of an addition to holiday entertainment. Seems like an autonomous, flying Santa sleigh may be next.

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