Disney's Flixel drone technology for nighttime shows takes a step closer to becoming reality

Jan 11, 2016 in "Epcot"

News of Disney developing drone technology for use in nighttime spectaculars surfaced back in late 2014 with the filing of various patents relating to their use in a theme park environment.

The patents describe using a number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) together to provide a synchronized aerial display. At the core of the technology is a desire to create a reusable, repeatable, dynamic and interactive show - something that no other large scale display technology has been able to achieve.

The drones are described as carying various payloads containing different types of projection surfaces. Each UAV with a display payload is described as a floating pixel, or Flixel.

The display is created by each individual flixel moving position, and changing its display payload, such as color.

News has just surfaced via a Federal Aviation Administration public record, that Disney filed for an exemption to rules that would allow Disney to operate drones over both Walt Disney World Resort and the Disneyland Resort.

The 48 page document was filed with the FAA back in October 2015, and goes into great detail describing how the system would be operated, and how Disney would ensure safety of the operators and guests.

It describes using up to 50 flixels in a show, with a flight time duration of 5 minutes.

Although no specifics shows are named, Epcot is detailed in a diagram showing a flight path, which could possibly suggest the use of drones in a future Epcot nighttime show, or an enhancement to IllumiNations. It would also seem likely that all four Walt Disney World parks could make use of the technology, and with new shows on the horizon at the parks, now would be an ideal time to incorporate flixels into their design.

Although the technology sounds like a breakthrough addition to the nighttime show effects repertoire, the document does detail a number of operational conditions that would suggest their use would be in addition to more traditional effects, rather than as a complete replacement. A requirement of a wind speed of less than 10mph and no rainfall would make the system not available for daily operations at Walt Disney World. Much like the Tink flight during Wishes, the effects may be missing from some shows due to weather.

If Disney goes ahead with the use of flixels, it would not be the first time that drones have been used in outdoor shows. Intel recently set a record involving 100 small aircraft being launched in formation and has earned a new world record title for the Most Unmanned Aerial Vehicles airborne simultaneously. “Drone 100” took place at Flugplatz Ahrenlohe, Tornesch, Germany, in November 2015. The record was set in collaboration with Ars Electronica Futurelab to push the limits of the UAV industry and to show what UAVs can be used for.

MarketWatch who originally reported Disney's interest in drones, reports that Walt Disney Imagineering has been working with California based 3D Robotics on the drone technology.

For more information on Disney's flixels, you can read the full FAA document here, and view some of the patent filings here.

An excerpt from the filing is below.

“Flixels are to accompany entertainment at the Walt Disney World® and Disneyland® Resorts, including during each resort’s nightly Fireworks Spectaculars. Deployed from a monitored platform designated as the launch/land area in restricted access areas of each resort, Flixels will be “magically” incorporated into Disney story elements that engage and inspire children and their families. Once the show segment concludes, Flixels will return to the launching/landing area.

The Flixels’ fleet consists of four, six, or eight propeller multicopters. Flixels operate within assigned subnetworks for communication to the ground and each other, where each subnetwork comprises five multicopters. Each Flixels weighs less than ten pounds. Each multicopter includes a special effects element (e.g., LED lighting), battery, and wireless signal receiver/radio. Flixels will fly slower than six knots groundspeed during a short (e.g., five minute) airborne segment. All Flixels flights are restricted to an airspace no more than 600 feet in diameter and Flixels’ maximum flight level will be no higher than 150 feet AGL.

Flight areas and flight paths are designed to maximize safety procedures in place at the Walt Disney World® and Disneyland® Resorts. First, all operations will occur within no-fly zones. Second, proposed shows have flight areas at least 100 feet from permitted guest-viewing areas at all times. Third, Flixels launch from and land within restricted areas and their flight paths will largely take place over water elements and restricted areas. Notably, Disney is highly experienced in ensuring safety for guests and staff within the area where Flixels will operate since it is the same space where Disney has operated regular, large-scale pyrotechnic shows for several decades. Disney has drawn on this rich body of experience in its design and development of Flixels.“

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Article Posted: Jan 11, 2016 / 8:11am EST