For the past year, 396 audiences of up to 1,900 people have witnessed a troupe of eight colourful lampshades perform an airborne choreography during Cirque du Soleil’s Broadway show Paramour, which just ended on April 20. The flying lampshades, which turn out to be self-piloted drones, bear the signature of Swiss high-tech company Verity Studios.
But how novel is it really that robots have appeared in theatre? Since Karel Čapek’s science fiction play R.U.R. (short for Rossum’s Universal Robots) introduced the word “robot” to the English language and to science fiction as a whole almost 100 years ago, the technical challenges of incorporating robots into live performance and theatre have been overwhelming. Before these Broadway drones, nearly all theatre robots were remote-controlled puppets, relying on humans hidden off-scene to steer their movements and provide their intelligence.
To promote intelligent, autonomous flying machines in live theatre goes hand in hand with tackling a multi-faceted challenge: creating a compelling performance with safety, reliability, and ease of operation. Building on more than a decade of research and development at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), the first groups of autonomous robots are now meeting the live event industries’ high requirements: During their one-year run, the drones on Broadway have safely completed more than 6,000 autonomous take-offs, flights, and landings. A landmark achievement for Broadway, some 100 years on, but just a few blocks away from, Čapek’s robot’s Broadway debut.
The dancing drones are custom-made and handcrafted in Switzerland. Performance and reliability is key: Unlike all other commercial drones, these flying machines use a fully redundant design. They resist any failure and continue to fly even if a propeller, motor, battery, cable, or any other component stops functioning – a critical capability that, while triggered only once during the show’s thousands of flights, prevented the concerned drone crashing into its audience.
The result of this technical feat: A new, powerful creative tool for avant-garde creators that extends the traditional palette of light, sound, stage effects, and human performance.