How Intel creates its flying drone shows

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Intel, which wowed folks with its syncronized drone show at the Olympics, is at it again, with a drone show at the Coachella music festival near Palm Springs Sunday.
We sit down with an Intel exec who explains how it works, and why Intel is pushing the idea of dancing drones.
USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES — Intel, once best known as the company that powered PCs and Macs with its silicon chips, is now perhaps better known to the public for its awesome drone light shows.  

The company doesn’t make consumer drones nor does it have plans to take on DJI or Yuneec, but it’s become a frequent visitor to high profile events like the Super Bowl and Olympics with synchronized aerial drone shows.

The Olympics alone had 1,218 drones in the air at one time, forming five Olympic rings and other intricate figures. It won a new Guinness World Records title for the most drones flown simultaneously. 

Sunday, it did another show, having a team of drones flying over headliner Odesza as the electronic music duo performed at the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, Calif. 

So how does Intel do it? And why? 

“It’s all with software,” said Anil Nanduri, VP GM of Intel’s drone team, in a recent visit to the Los Angeles USA TODAY bureau. “There is one person who sits in front of a computer and hits a button called launch.

Nanduri brought along some of his “Shooting Star” drones, which weigh less than 12 ounces, about on par with a volleyball, and have extensive flight guards on their edges to keep the propellers from tangling with another, to show how Intel software can make them blink different colors, and change their hue. 

“You can put thousands of them in the sky,” he said. 

Nanduri operated them via a Hewlett-Packard laptop running Windows software. 

Why does Intel do it? Part of it is PR, to bring attention to its brand and show how Intel has shifted away from a company that just made computer chips.

It now is also focusing on chips for autonomous cars, artificial intelligence and drones as well and is no longer as PC-centric. In 2017, 47% of its $62.8 billion in revenues came from the new areas.

Beyond that, Intel also makes money putting drones into the skies. Nanduri says Intel has performed over 200 drone shows and charges for its services. Prices vary, but the average is “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. 

Beyond sporting events, Intel has also flown the drones over the fountains at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas and a “Wonder Woman,” themed show in Las Vegas, to honor the opening of the 2017 film.

Shows can be created “in a matter of days,” according to the Intel website, depending upon how extensive the animation is. 

Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham on Twitter, @jeffersongraham

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