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Disney thinks it could turn drones into flying TV screens and puppet masters

Disney thinks it could turn drones into flying TV screens and puppet masters

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Disney has never lagged in animatronics or high technology for its shows and theme parks — they're more or less tiny, high-tech surveillance dystopias with classic rides, exorbitantly expensive food, and all your favorite TV and movie characters from childhood. But a handful of patent applications pointed out by MarketWatch are particularly interesting: the company is coming up with ways to use drones as TV screens and animatronic puppet masters. Each of the patents outlines uses for synchronized swarms of tiny quadcopters or multicopters, which could either supplement or replace its existing light shows, fireworks displays, and parade balloons.

The first two patents cover different methods of producing light shows, either with large, flexible screens lifted by small remote-controlled craft or swarms of drones that are each fitted with a light and act as "flixels" or floating pixels. In one, the screens could be large projection surfaces made of mesh that would allow wind to pass through, or they could actually produce their own images: Disney's application suggests loosely woven strips of LEDs. The drones would be able to detect each other and work in concert, according to a central program. In one of the images, they're carrying huge ribbons around a Disney castle.


The other option would see the drones carrying lights that would change color as needed, letting an operator program them to make pictures or abstract displays that look like fireworks. This isn't the first time someone has tried this idea, although Disney tries to add enough specificity to warrant a patent. Last year, drones formed a Starfleed insignia over London to promote the launch of Star Trek Into Darkness, and they created a light show at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. Disney points out that the quadcopters could be more flexible than ordinary displays but safer and more predictable than fireworks, as long as they're able to minimize the risk of one accidentally falling out of the sky.

A third patent isn't quite as dramatic-looking, but it's conceptually a little creepier. The patent would see groups of quadcopters hoist giant marionettes (something like the balloons in a Macy's parade, with light frames) into the air, acting as autonomous flying puppet masters. These patents were filed just a few days ago and haven't been granted, and companies patent all sorts of things that they never really plan on using. But if anyone is in a position to put together a flying robotic entertainment troupe, it's Disney.