October 28, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Neil Stoker finds out about how Project Daedalus is looking at creative ways to fuse two emerging technologies - drones and virtual reality - and is trying to get everyone involved
Dennis Outten with drone P1020475-2_1024w
Dennis Outten of Project Daedalus flies a drone in Somerset House

Drones are usually in the news in a negative way – their destructive potential as rather anonymous deliverers of bombs, invaders of privacy, or just as noisy toys that other people play with in unsociable (and possibly dangerous) ways.  Even the name is negative, with overtones of monotony, or in science fiction, assimilation as a mindless being into a collective.  So it was a pleasurable change to attend an event about drones that was much lighter, positive and upbeat.

Named after the mythical Greek craftsman with a distinctly ambivalent career, Project Daedalus is the product of a collaboration between three groups: Abandon Normal Devices (AND), who host festivals of cinema, digital culture and art; creative studio Marshmallow Laser Feast who play with light and virtual reality; and the University of Salford where Andy Miah is Professor of Science Communication & Future Media. We are told that Project Daedalus:

 “aims to liberate geographic constraints on artistic experiences and live events, using quadrotor technology (flying drones), combined with custom-made applications, to test new ways of engaging audiences remotely with content in real-time. Project Daedalus will test the limits of non-linear storytelling by creating interactive environments, which allow audiences to engage remotely by creating and sharing content in real-time.”

Or the short version: they’re playing with drones to see how they can be used creatively.

So after a year of working on this project, they showcased their work at a Somerset House, last week.  Over a glass of wine, I got to fly my first drone, and test out virtual reality headsets, and they formally launched the most tangible aspect of the project – their ‘toolkit’ – which is really an online FAQ for drone hobbyists containing information about practicalities and legalities, and which they hope will encourage others to dip their toes – or dive – into the world of quadcopters.   While the larger ones can set you back more than £1000, the baby quads retail for £50 or less, so they really have become accessible.

360 poster P1020491_1024wOne of the aspects most on show was the combination of two new technologies – drones and 360 degree cameras.  The new Bjork Stonemilker video is shot with a 360 camera, and if you play it on your phone, and turn around, the image changes accordingly.  Pop your phone into a cheap cardboard Google VR  headset, and you could be stood on the beach with the Icelandic songstress. Project Daedalus used a 360 camera on a drone flying over Grizedale Forest in Cumbria (they call it ‘drone-cinema’), so you can become a bird looking around you as you flying above the treetops.  Even without the 360 aspect, drones are likely to become routine in movie making (example 1; example 2).

The Project Daedalus website records other ways that drones have been used creatively by people outside the project – I was particularly taken with weaving in 3 dimensions, which has real engineering as well as creative potential.  Another really practical use is for a drone to control sheep – something that was developed by the farmer himself.

At the recent Imperial Festival, I spoke to Mirko Kovac, Director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory in Imperial College, who is looking for ways for drones to be used in very practical ways on a larger scale.  For example in disaster relief zones, they can not only move through difficult terrain, but they even have the potential to construct buildings:

Listen to Mirko Kovac talk about using drones to 3D print buildings

So creativity can be beautiful, and it can be extraordinarily useful.  The next event for the consortium is a 2-day festival at Grizedale Forest, of “distributed, sculptural and sometimes temporal works sited across the sculpture park”.  But this is clearly a technology that is ripe for people to start playing with on their own, and like all new technologies, while a lot of it will be annoying or a little sinister, some of it is likely to be fantastic.

Neil Stoker is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Images: Neil Stoker