Tinkerbell just might be able to fly over Main Street, U.S.A. without wires someday.
The concept could come true as the Walt Disney Co. seeks ways to incorporate drones into its theme parks.
Three Disney Imagineers have filed patents that outline plans to use unmanned aircraft systems capable of carrying large puppet-like characters and projection screens during nighttime shows – signaling a potential change in how the company engages crowds while keeping up with the latest technology.
“Fifty years ago, Disney would create the technology themselves, but now they adapt what’s already in use and turn it into their own purposes,” said David Koenig, author of “Mouse Tales,” which provides a behind-the-scenes look at Disneyland.
“It should be interesting to see how they use this,” Koenig said. “I think it will be a perfect match that will allow Disney to create new entertainment experiences.”
A Disneyland Resort spokeswoman declined to comment on the patents, filed last week with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, or the possible use of drones during shows.
One of the patent applications would allow Disney to attach giant balloons to the drones, or use them to control the limbs of large puppets, to give them the appearance of walking or flying.
Another patent calls for using the drones to haul huge, flexible projection screens.
The third patent would allow the drones to carry a light system that would display images onto screens or the sky with the use of floating pixels, or “flixels,” that the application hinted could replace Disney’s long-held tradition of shooting fireworks.
The technology wouldn’t exactly be a first for theme parks.
Lanterns and lights are attached to a fleet of drones that circle crowds watching a nighttime parade at Lotte World in South Korea, said Todd Regan, founder of Micechat, an independent website that reports on theme parks, especially Disney’s.
“Disney is forward-thinking enough to think about this technology now and find some entertainment value to it,” Regan said. “It doesn’t mean drones will actually make it into any shows, but it certainly does mean they have people researching this and don’t want competitors to steal their ideas.”
Disney holds patents for some technology used at its theme parks. The company has allowed competitors to use the knowledge, likely for a fee: One system uses compressed air rather than gunpowder to shoot off nightly fireworks.
While hobbyists don’t need a permit to fly drones, Disney would have to make sure the aircraft are certified, have licensed pilots operating them and gain approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, according to the agency.
The FAA is reviewing requests from seven companies wanting to use drones for filming movies or TV shows.
Ruth Ruiz, Anaheim’s spokeswoman, said the city does not have a policy when it comes to using drones but officials will likely consider the issue as the technology advances.
“Anything that flies has to go through a lot of safety checks, and that’s why the FAA is really looking into how they regulate airspace when it comes to drones,” said Rick Heise, president of Swift Engineering, whose San Clemente company has worked on undisclosed projects at Disney’s theme parks.
“Disney takes safety just as seriously, and I’m sure they will put their own checks and balances into making sure a drone won’t fall out of the sky and hit someone,” Heise said. “The science is definitely there for Disney to make this possible, it just depends on how much they’re willing to spend to make it happen.”