As our future robotic overlords come to enslave us, they'll be dancing the Electric Boogaloo.
Some may consider flying drones to be the pilotless perverters of privacy. Or, worse, they're heartless harbingers of death.
But one Philadelphia filmmaker has cast the small scale aircraft in a very different sort of role. Kurtis Sensenig envisions them as a graceful, agile and even comedic troupe of dancers.
In a stunning video that debuted this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Sensenig choreographs an aerial swarm of robot quadrotors to an electronic dance track. The automated chorus line flies in precise formations as individual drones break into flips and loops.
"It was one of the most challenging things I've ever done," said Sensenig, a Temple grad who once interned as a video producer at Philly.com. "I don't have any background in dance. I can barely step out on a dance floor."
It's not the first time Sensenig has worked with the troupe. As a video producer at the University of Pennsylvania, Sensenig was behind the camera when a similar swarm of drones - created by Penn's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab - performed a James Bond theme on quirkily modified instruments. (See that video below.)
The Bond video went viral. It garnered more than 3.6 million views on YouTube and earned a standing ovation when Penn faculty member Vijay Kumar at the 2012 TED conference in Long Beach, Calif. The video, which made Penn's YouTube channel one of the most popular in the world, was also featured on CNN, the websites of the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and Philly.com, among scores of other outlets.
The flying robots creators, Alex Kushleyev and Daniel Mellinger, have since graduated from Penn and founded KMel Robotics.
Sensenig hadn't worked with Kushleyev and Mellinger since the Bond video. Wanting to make a big splash at this year's CES, they called Sensenig and gave him free rein to design, produce and shoot.
"I had choreographed the robots in James Bond, but this wasn't anything like it," he said. "The James Bond video was purely mechanical. This needed to be art."
Sensenig spent hours listening to the dance track, playing it over and over, "trying to think how I could make it all look as cool as possible."
The collaborators met often, with Sensenig's suggestions pushing Kushleyev and Mellinger into new territory.
"They're geniuses," he said. "They can make these things do moves no one else has been able to do."
Last week, they shot the video in quarter-hour increments inside a rented warehouse in West Philadelphia. Those short bursts of filming don't bode well for schemes to use drones as Amazon delivery devices.
"They can only fly 15 minutes," Sensenig said. "The engineers have solved most of the issues with sensors and computing. But no one has been able to crack the problem of extending battery life."
Sensenig had planned to be at CES for his film's debut, but his flight was cancelled due to the polar vortex.
His plans for future films, however, are just heating up.
At Penn last week, Sensenig submitted his resignation to devote all his energies to his own projects at Kurtis Films.
"I really like this niche of artistic robotic films," Sensenig said. "I'd love to do as many as possible. But I'm not banking on my success on these robotic films because I don't know if there'd be enough to pay the bills.
"But it will be the secret sauce of the company."