Dances With Drones

MIT and a modern dance company team up to show drones aren’t all bad.

The modern dance company Pilobulus performed with drones in 2011 at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C.

The dance company Pilobulus performed with drones in 2011 at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C.

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Drones have been used to kill terrorists overseas, to help arrest American citizens and to survey nature. Now, they're being used for what might be their most difficult role yet: Dance partner.

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For the past several years, researchers at MIT and the modern dance company Pilobulus have teamed up to explore the interactions between humans and robots as the line between man and machine continues to blur.

In Seraph, a single male dancer slinks around onstage, carefully studying a small, LED-lit object. The machine charges at him and he rolls away, terrified. The machine—a quadrotor helicopter—takes off and his fear quickly turns to intrigue. The copter swoops over his head, he dives under it. Within minutes, a second drone emerges, chasing him offstage.

Onstage, the interaction is obviously dramatized, but Itamar Kubovy, executive director of Pilobulus, says that the show was designed to explore society's increasing reliance on and closeness with robots.

"The prevalence of drones made it more important to understand what the kinds of interactions between man and machine is like," Kubovy says. "We wanted to explore having a space that is occupied by both machines and people—this idea that a machine is watching and surveilling and a human is responding to that."


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Seraph toured around the country for about 40 shows in 2011 and 2012 and is currently being reworked by Daniela Rus, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, to include more drones and more human dancers. Flying a drone in the close quarters of a theater is tricky business, something the dance company learned during rehearsals, though no drones ever crashed during a performance.

"We crashed them all the time, crashed them constantly [during rehearsal]," Kubovy says. "We learned what the limits of the technology are and then learned to push those limits."

Rus' students at MIT flew the drones during performances. She says it was an opportunity for people who are normally rooted in one world—either dance or robotics—to expand their horizons. Theater-going types, she says, were generally unfamiliar with the technology until they saw the performance.

"I remember going to my first show and seeing the robot taking off the floor. You see people pointing and looking for the rope, wondering how we did it," she says. "Part of the aspiration with this project is to show how technology can lead to new expressions of creativity and beauty and can inspire."

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Sunday, the team will collaborate on a new performance, called the Umbrella Project, in which 200 participants will hold LED-lit umbrellas on a football field at MIT. Participants will be rearranged to create pictures, using each umbrella as an individual pixel as a crane photographs and videotapes them from overhead. After that, Kubovy and Rus will go back to the drawing board on the drone project.

While the prospect of drone use in the United States can often inspire fears of Big Brother snooping or, if Rand Paul is to be believed, Predator drones shooting American citizens while they're in a coffee shop, Kubovy says it's how the technology is used that's important.

"There's an enormous amount of applications for them. I don't think there's a fundamental moral quality association with the technology, it's the application of the technology that's important," he says. "It can be used to invade privacy or can be used in other ways to achieve creative things."


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