Drones in the music

Funny new artists approaching


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Kraftwerk invented the Man-Machine, Daft Punk the robot sound. What are the two guys from UPenn working on now in Qualcomm’s creative department? Will they construct drones that compose symphonies? Or conduct orchestras? Or will they present the world’s first drone band? One thing is sure, they will have a huge hit — automatically.

  • Author: Carlo Roschinsky
  • Photos: Kmel

Imagine the future: Not too close to reality, not too far away. Humans are still populating the planet, but they have become idle, downright lazy, actually. They’ve turned all physical as well as intellectual work over to machines, machines they created: Machines create paintings that humans then admire; they write books that humans then listen to (yes, listen to: needless to say, people no longer actually read), and machines create and perform music that humans then enjoy. Sounds weird, however an internet video uploaded last year by the young tech company KMel Robotics proves that we are not so far away from this reality.

The video opens on a dark room in which six hexacopters whiz around. The small rotorcraft approach the set-up for the experiment: drums, pianos, tight strings, all quiet for a second — then bam! Queue the famous drum rolls of „Thus Spoke Zarathusthra“ by Richard Strauss. The drones hit the precise notes in perfect choreography. Stanley Kubricks 2001 comes to mind, of course, the bone flying high in the opening scenes, the film maker’s ode to progress (and his warning of it). The drones are not programmed by a live remote control but, rather, by computer software. They play on: „Carol of the Bells“ then „The Star-Spangled Banner“ by hitting tiny bells.

„It is very precise timing: The drones receive 100 commands per second,“ one of the engineers of the experiment, Daniel Mellinger, explains to a reporter from the BBC. Mellinger and his friend Alex Kushleyev are the founders of KMel Robotics. The two worked for years on their little video that turned into an internet sensation not only for the stunning execution but also because it raised interesting questions, among them just how much longer do we need humans to make music?

Drones remain primarily the purview of the military. Nearly 90 percent of all unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) operate in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria — pretty much wherever conflict and war rage. In non-military sectors of society, though, drones conquer more slowly — yet conquer they do.

For quite a while now, Amazon has employed Prime Air service, wherein octocopter drones use GPS to deliver packages. Essayist Alex Cornell, who runs Silicon Valle software company Firespotter Labs, is convinced that cities and communities will use drones in the future for neighborhood survey and safety. To be ahead of the trend, he came up with drones-on-demand app „Gofor“. His unmanned mini-robots are expected to make daily life — finding parking spots, handling shopping, even sight-seeing — easier. Cornell’s competition, startup company Lily Robotics, had a viral hit with their flying drone: In their video, five guys from Berkeley demonstrate how they just throw Lily up in the air, and the super smart device then starts making films or photos, all without ever losing „eye contact“ with the person wearing the tracker.

Without question, the market for drones is potentially enormous. According to a study published by American consulting company Teal Group, UAV spending will nearly double over the next decade, from 2015’s $6.4 billion to $ 11.5 billion in 2025. These numbers include application areas that nowadays are still in an experimental stage, music among them.

In the music, robots have been mere assistents and nothing more. That's about to change

In the arts, most people still believe in the power of human genius. And artists do not want to hand creative control over to machines. Even programs like Auto Tune, an audio processor to correct and alter digital recordings and voices, is still under the control of the human at the helm. The music industry willingly employs drones as flying cameras covering festivals or concerts for TV. But these robots are mere assistants; independent decision making is a complete other matter — and what makes KMel Robotics’ video so disturbing.

Alex Kushleyev and Daniel Mellinger met at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where they recognized and appreciated a mutual love for robotics. One of their first experiments — music via automats — has been documented on the university’s YouTube channel. In the video, robots play the James Bond theme. Well, sort of: It came out a bit pitchy and wobbly, and the entire setting seemed rather amateurish. Yet still, when the video was presented at a TED conference in 2012, the audience was thrilled. Industry agents began pursuing the two innovators.

Qualcomm bought the start-up and now protects the genius minds

In February of this year, the students’ startup was bought by San Diego based telecommunication giant Qualcomm for an undisclosed amount. Since that time, Kushleyev and Mellinger have been rather MIA, unreachable by phone and e-mail, and the KMel Robotics homepage remains static with the message, „We are extremely exited to become part of the Qualcomm team and look forward to bringing aerial robotics to the next level together.“