Accidental Career as a Drone Show Maestro

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Intel Innovator: Natalie Cheung, Drone Light Show General Manager

Natalie Cheung holds one of the 1,128 Intel Shooting Star drones that were a highlight of the Olympic Winter Games Opening Ceremony. (Credit: Intel Corporation)

How she’d describe her job to a 10-year-old:My group uses drones with lights to tell stories in the sky. We have created new technology that can create digital fireworks.

More: Read about all Intel Innovators

Another show, another world record: Natalie and her drone team just set their fourth Guinness World Record title at the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, when they flew a fleet of synchronized Intel Shooting Star drones — 1,218 of them — in the air at once. In January in Las Vegas, Natalie’s drone team set a new indoor world record, flying 110 drones at Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s CES keynote, the drones circling overhead and their lights flashing in perfect synchrony. “Watching them light up and animate the sky is one thing,” she says, “but to think that they’re all being controlled by one computer with just one pilot really showcases the technology Intel has created.”

The accidental career: Natalie didn’t see herself managing drone light shows around the world when she joined Intel in 2011 as a systems engineer fresh out of MIT with a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science. She was working  as a research assistant to Krzanich when Intel acquired the drone company Ascending Technologies. In an impromptu hallway conversation with her boss, they came up with the idea of flying 100 drones at the same time in front of an Intel building. After four successful 100-drone shows, she turned a passion project into a full-time job. “My family didn’t get it at first,” Natalie says, “but then I had the chance to take them to Disney World where we were doing a Christmas light show. They got it when they saw it live. It was a really fun moment.”

A high-flying job: Ask Natalie how she is and she may admit, “I’m a bit jet-lagged.” Last summer, she flew to South Korea to pitch a drone show to Olympic officials. Before that, the team staged custom light shows for Lady Gaga’s 2017 NFL Super Bowl Halftime show, Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, and a special “Wonder Woman” event at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium. She’s also lit up night skies with shows in Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia. “I’m so passionate about what I’m doing,” she says, “that it doesn’t seem like work.”

‘Magic in the sky’: Natalie sees a day when drones will enhance or even replace fireworks. She believes “we are changing nighttime entertainment.” Her team recently received a thank you message from a grateful father whose daughter suffers from a sensory processing disorder that prevents her from watching loud fireworks shows. “It’s the small things like that to make us want to expand drone light shows,” Natalie  says. She recalls a child at a recent light show who called the drones “light fairies.” They might not understand the technology, she says, but “they see this magic in the sky.”

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