Drone expert explains how Lady Gaga's 300 Super Bowl halftime flyers worked

Intel's Shooting Star drones shone in the sky behind Lady Gaga's Super Bowl halftime show. A Waterloo, Ont. drone insider explains how they did it.
Lady Gaga sings This Land is Your Land 0:30

Lady Gaga started her Super Bowl half time show at the top of Houston's NRG stadium with 300 drones flying in the night sky behind her, transforming from a constellation of stars into a floating American flag. 

It was a stunning technological display that showcased Intel's Shooting Star drone squad, a team that creates shows with hundreds of drones that can be controlled and programmed ahead of time – or changed up in real time.

According to Wired, that section of Lady Gaga's performance was taped ahead of time because it required special federal approval to fly so many drones at once so close to Houston's airport – and to avoid flying the drones live over the heads of a Super Bowl audience.

"They would be using some pretty rigorous GPS," said Adam Stephens, a digital media marketing specialist with Aeryon Labs Inc., the Waterloo-based company that makes unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial use as well as heavy duty drones for military, police and public safety work.

"GPS technology, I imagine, would be a main element for them, as well as digital positioning technology. There might possibly be some obstacle avoidance technologies which are becoming prevalent in the consumer grade drone technology now, although I imagine they could probably operate without those," said Stephens.  

Intel can program and control up to 500 drones at a time.

3-D time and space

The real secret is not just the accurate positioning, but the programs that tell the drones where to be. 

"They would have real-time 3-D modellers that would be issuing out commands for the drones to go ahead and hold positions at certain [places]," said Stephens.

He added that the practical way to accomplish three dimensional changes in flight formation would require a "3-D modeller over-laced with some sort of chronological or time graph, similar to video editing or audio editing software."

He said that the drones in Lady Gaga's show appear to be relatively small, about 12 inches (30 centimetres) across, and the propellers are encased in cages.

For comparison, Aeryon's drones are usually about 42 inches across (about 107 centimetres), don't have a caged housing over the propellers and are able to stay airborne for long periods of time.


 

Corrections

  • In a previous version of this article CBC incorrectly identified Adam Stephens as Adam Stephenson.
    Feb 07, 2017 10:23 AM ET