Mickey Mouse Takes to the Skies!

I have seen the future of entertainment, and it is drones! Well, perhaps not right away, but sooner than we might think.

The Walt Disney Company has been known for being on the cutting edge of technological developments in the entertainment field throughout its history.  As far back as the 1930s, Disney developed the first talking cartoon, the first Technicolor cartoon, and the first full-length feature animated movie.  Behind the scenes, the company developed the revolutionary multi-plane camera that added depth to still images, audio-animatronics, and the first all-steel rollercoaster.  Given this background, it was only a matter of time before the company put its resources into developing drones for entertainment.

Late last week, three patent applications filed by the Disney Company were made public, showing where this technology may be headed.  The first is a system for using drones to manipulate enormous marionettes as part of a parade or show.  The second is a method for using a number of drones to carry a large mobile projection screen between them.  The third employs a complex control system to coordinate the movement of a large number of small drones with lighting systems to form complex moving patterns and pictures in the sky.

Of course, it will probably be a while before Disney will be able to translate these concepts from prototypes to a show-ready performance.  It will also probably take a while for the company to work through the regulatory issues.

The airspace around Walt Disney World is already restricted.  Since 2003, flights have been prohibited below 3000 feet within a 3 mile radius of the main spire of Cinderella’s Castle.  This may make Disney’s drone use easier, because there is a substantial buffer from other aircraft.  Of course, the operation of many drones in proximity to tens of thousands of people has serious safety implications that will have to be addressed through sterile areas for the performance and the path the drones would use to transit to any show area.

None of these safety or regulatory issues are insurmountable.  In fact, all of these issues could be adequately addressed today through a Section 333 Exemption Petition if the company was ready to move forward with the project.  The Disney parks are, in many ways, enormous complex machines that have to work perfectly every day to safely accommodate thousands upon thousands of people.  The company is certainly capable of operating a comprehensive maintenance and safety program that can satisfy the FAA. Perhaps the biggest unknown is:  How far in advance will we have to make our reservations?

(Originally posted August 28, 2014)

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