Dancing Drones: An Interview with Tony Martin

Writer-in-residence Gemma Wynton talks with Tony Martin of Celestial Labs about drones

Tony Martin is the newest addition to our cohort of residents at The Studio at Palace Yard Mews, joining us just prior to the Covid-19 shutdown. Tony is a technologist, and co-founder of Celestial Labs⎯the new business he has started with John Hopkins and Nick Kowalski who also have experience with drone technology as well as roots in the film industry. 

Tony’s career isn’t as straightforward as it sounds though; previously, Tony was an executive at Creation Records and was Vice President Europe at Sony Music, and he also has experience with Primal Scream. During his time at Sony, Tony collaborated with numerous artists, including Beyonce⎯among others. After a while though, he decided to up sticks and move to France, working on multiple projects using technological strategies within film, music and the journalism industries throughout Europe and the United States. And that is where he discovered what would become the core of his work with Celestial Labs: drones. Yes, you read correctly, drones. Eco-friendly firework displays that mimic human performance in the sky. Very cool!

Those bright dots in the sky? Drones. This is not an illusion; there is no hidden projector. These are robots in the sky—digital fireflies if you like. Using motion capture, and inspired by the murmuration of birds (those interesting shapes and ‘flight performances’ you see birds doing, for those of you who aren’t familiar), Tony and his team are developing a new kind of performance, bringing not just dynamic lighting and special effects to the stage (like you see in theatres today) but breathing life into the technology itself to enhance the visual performances. 

How Can We Use Drones Ethically?

An interesting new form of performance is all well and good, but what is art without purpose? The creative industries (arguably more now than ever before) are centred around contributing towards the bigger picture. What can my work do to enhance the lives of others and our society? This is a question that I think every artist, writer, technologist, or anyone working within the creative industries should ask themselves, because, unlike banking, for example, we do not hide behind suits and ties, our work is made to be consumed.

Tony and his team at Celestial Labs are passionate about the positive effects that their technology can have on the environment. Let’s take New Years’ for example; when the 2019-2020 firework display in London combined with an extreme lack of wind on the day and as a result  the sky over the city was filled with tiny particles of barium, copper, strontium, potassium, and chloride (all ingredients used to make fireworks—no, it’s not just gunpowder). These particles stayed in the air for four hours before they finally began to dissipate—not to mention the added pollution that drifted over from France’s display later that night. By using drones to achieve these displays, we can reduce air pollution; subsequently, reducing the risks of health conditions such as asthma and even heart attacks, according to the EPA (the United States Environmental Protection Agency).

As far as environmental ethics are concerned, we have a duty to value the lives of animals, plants, and the planet as a whole, as much as we do our own; therefore, we have to consider their rights as much as our own and consider our impact on them. 

Celestial began tackling ethics by considering drone involvement in conflict zones such as Syria and Afghanistan, where drones are more commonly known for being used for surveillance and as weapons. 

"We started thinking about putting drones in the sky that would literally be a beacon of hope for refugees in really difficult situations," Tony said.

In addition, drones could be used as practical tools, for example, to create visual maps in the sky that would indicate to refugees where aid, safety or other kinds of help could be found. Where better to find help than high in the sky?

The Good in COVID-19

In response to more recent issues, Celestial are hoping to release displays in dense urban areas to uplift people in isolation by giving them engaging performances experienced by looking out of the window; wrapped into the performance would be messages such as ‘stay home’ or ‘protect the NHS’, for example, to help keep people inside, protected and safe. 

Speaking of COVID-19, this is where The Studio comes in; as well as becoming new residents, Tony and his team at Celestial Labs recently received a coronavirus support grant from The Studio. For Celestial, this grant helped with covering costs such as with software licences and other key payments.

I hope to hear a lot more from this team of technologists as they launch Celestial (literally) into the sky, and who knows, maybe New Years 2020-2021 will be a little bit different. Until next time, 

Gemma Wynton 

Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.



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