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Courtesy of Drexel ExCITe Lab/Parsons Dance

Drexel drones star in Philly dance world premiere

Working on a budget, the ExCITe Lab created machines that could interact with humans.

Inside the glass-walled, high-ceilinged makeshift lab in Drexel University’s Bossone Research Center, four students sit huddled around a row of laptops, their screens multi-tasking between writing code, running video simulations and shopping for headphones. On a nearby bench, pliers and wires fight for space with empty Cheetos bags. Lockers are labeled in hastily scrawled black marker: “Tools,” “Stuff,” “More Stuff.”

Half the room is empty, however, as this lab is designed for flight.

And when a small black drone suddenly lifts off the floor and begins tracing slow, rhythmic circles in the air, all the clutter and utility fall away. This buzzing black hunk of plastic suddenly possesses a weightless grace — and it’s captivating to watch.

It’s not quite dance, but it doesn’t tax the imagination too much to envision that it could be. If all goes as planned, by next week it will be.

On Wednesday, Dec. 7, New York City-based Parsons Dance will open a six-show run at the Prince Theater as part of NextMove Dance’s current season. The program will feature several of choreographer David Parsons’ pieces, including the Philadelphia premiere of “Finding Center,” set to the music of award-winning soundtrack composer Thomas Newman and inspired by the visual art of Rita Blitt; a whimsical piece entitled “Hand Dance;” and Parsons’ trademark, strobe-lit 1982 piece “Caught.”

But the centerpiece of the show will be the world premiere of “The Machines,” which will feature six dancers and six programmed flying drones.

Preview video via the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill

The innovative piece was created in collaboration with engineering and computer science students from Drexel’s ExCITe Center under the direction of Dr. Youngmoo Kim, whose double major in music and engineering, first at Swarthmore and then at Stanford, make him uniquely qualified to lead the way into such an unprecedented fusion of art and technology. It’s the latest interdisciplinary work for the innovative lab, which previously designed the Philadelphia Orchestra’s LiveNote app and programmed the Tetris game that played on the facade of the Cira Centre.

“I like to think the ExCITe Center provides an environment where people like me can find a path,” said Dr. Kim at the center’s temporary drone lab last month. “I ended up double majoring in music and engineering because I couldn’t decide which one to give up. I think there’s real value in that. Arts and tech are not different things; they’ve been symbiotic throughout history. Great art inspires great technology and great technology inspires great art. We try to come up with projects that highlight those relationships.”

NextMove Dance director Randy Swartz introduced Parsons to Dr. Kim when the choreographer expressed an interest in exploring the intersections of technology and dance.

“I have a lot of interest in exploring the intersections of science and art, and with Youngmoo’s interest this seemed like a perfect fit,” Parsons told Billy Penn via email. “Lately I’ve been particularly interested in advancements in technology, specifically in robotics. I wanted to explore the evolution of man and machine and I thought what better way than with flying robotics? It’s always interesting to get artists and scientists to work together and to be reminded that we’re all creators.”

However, off-the-shelf components for precision drones — able to fly in formation and interact with human partners without their propellers forcing the curtain to drop on a bloody fiasco — would easily run into thousands of dollars for a single drone, let alone a half-dozen.

To get the project done, ExCITe engineers were forced to innovate.

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“We didn’t have that kind of budget,” said Dr. Kim, in an obvious understatement. “The drones you can buy for $100 or $200 at Target, which are primarily remote control toys, don’t have the kind of tracking and control capabilities that we need. Our design gives us a drone for under $500 that’s a lot more capable than anything you can get for $500 off the shelf.”

The Drexel drones work via a system that would be familiar to anyone who’s seen behind-the-scenes footage of motion capture animation for films. Each one has five distinct infrared detectors that interact with a series of infrared cameras around the perimeter of the stage, sensing and mapping each detector as it moves through the space.

That way, Dr. Kim explained, “you can have multiple drones that move together or that even cross over one another and you don’t have two guys with joysticks trying to make sure the drones don’t kill each other.”

The collaboration with Parsons has entailed a long back and forth process, with the choreographer dreaming up ideas for the drones and the Drexel contingent trying to translate those concepts into reality. Since the equipment is sensitive and fragile (not to mention expensive), the notion of having dancers physically touch the robots was shot down early. Other decisions have come down to compromise.

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“Dance is about trying to express yourself through movement,” said Dr. Kim. “We’re trying to find a way to express ourselves through movement on the drones, but of course you have to approach it by asking what does the technology allow?

“It’s a much different process than going to a dancer and describing their moves,” he continued. “There are certain things we can do very easily and there are certain things we just can’t do because the drone will wobble and fall out of the sky. Merging the vocabularies of computer science and engineering with artistic performance and dance has been an interesting process.”

Parsons understands and appreciates the challenge. “I enjoy how anything can happen when you combine science and technology with live theater,” he said. “You have to be open to the unknown and willing to be flexible.”

Ultimately, Dr. Kim is excited about the possibilities. Once the drones have been finalized, the design will be open-sourced so that other researchers can use and build upon it, whether for other forms of artistic expression or just for inexpensive programmable drone testing.

He also hopes the questions raised by Parsons’ piece will generate useful conversation.

“Drones obviously are a real buzzword right now, for good and not so good reasons,” he observed, citing privacy, surveillance and anti-terror efforts.

“So if this introduces more audiences to drones and what drones are capable of, or maybe even the perils of drones… We should be asking these questions as we develop these technologies,” Kim said. “I also hope it inspires other kids to want to work on this. Hopefully we’ll entertain a lot of people in the process. And not scare the heck out of them.”

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