LED equipped drones that can “draw” three-dimensional figures in midair



Spaxels are quadcopters equipped with a programmable LED system. They comprise a swarm that’s able to fly in formation and “draw” dynamic three-dimensional figures in the night sky. The Ars Electronica Futurelab is the sole player in this field, the only one capable of working with aesthetic forms of expression that were previously possible only on a computer and, via spaxels, translating them into the real world of a three-dimensional airspace.

 A Spaxel in the Air

The point of departure is having the vision to develop a display that goes beyond conventional screen-based media. The primary benefit of this mode of visualization is that the advantages of digital design come into play in depicting concrete visual forms that transcend what can be done with computer screens, large-scale displays and projections. Plus, taking leave of the narrow confines of a monitor makes it possible to generate a new aesthetic vocabulary that allows for a great deal more freedom of expression than has ever been available before.

The source of inspiration for the spaxels is the concept of the pixel, whereby coordinating the characteristics of individual points of light makes it possible to create an image or a moving picture. In this context, each quadcopter is considered an individual spaxel (space pixel) that, as part of a choreographed group, is able to represent a variety of forms, shapes and dynamic sequences.

To make this happen, we developed our own swarm management software and a ground control unit, and also made proprietary modifications to the aircraft’s software.

 Swarm management software

Spaxels now make it possible to generate aesthetic forms of expression that are not exclusively assignable to either the virtual world or the real one. So, this distinction isn’t just called into question; it’s undermined on a very practical level. What’s special about this reconfiguration is the material and aesthetic presence the spaxels unfold.

The spaxels debuted with a swarm of 49 quadcopters at the 2012 Linzer Klangwolke (Cloud of Sound). This has been followed by many more shows throughout Austria and abroad. The initial phase is now complete; as for further developmental possibilities, the sky’s the limit! From architectural visualizations to dynamic spatial elements in an indoor setting, there are virtually unlimited possibilities for deploying coordinated spaxel formations in a wide array of contexts.


For example, spaxels can be employed to create interactive configurations of high-profile architectural points that have never existed in this form. By darting between buildings and figuratively framing or signifying an entire architectural complex, the recontextualization of an urban space can be evoked in a way that makes interrelationships obvious, brings out previously unnoticed details, or enables an audience to experience something that doesn’t exist yet. Spaxels could form King Kong climbing the Empire State Building; open up a whole new approach to interactive tourist & pedestrian guidance systems; or depict planned real estate developments in their actual size right on the site where they’re planned to be built so that city dwellers can get realistic impressions of proposed projects. Whatever—spaxels open up previously undreamt-of modes of interaction between people and their environment.

Needless to say, the potential areas of application aren’t limited to urban settings. Spaxels could be deployed as an early warning system in case of a catastrophe, or sent aloft to keep participants in a bicycle race or marathon informed about what their competitors are up to at the moment.