Coming soon to Walt Disney World: Drone-powered puppets

Buzz Lightyear could soon fly above Walt Disney World, and Tinker Bell could flutter nearby — all thanks to drones.

By Thad Moore

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on TampaBay.Com.

Disney Flyers

Lake Buena Vista-based Walt Disney Co. has asked federal regulators for permission to start flying big, drone-powered marionette puppets at its theme parks in Florida and California, a project years in the making, according to an application made public Dec. 30.

The company’s plan is to put its characters on display during the parks’ nightly fireworks shows. The flights would be short — just five minutes or so — and mostly automated, but Disney’s plans are backed by complicated technology.

Each show would involve as many as 50 drones and a computer system that can shut them down automatically if they go off track or come too close to the audience. The company says onlookers would be at least 100 feet away and its employees could take control of a drone if needed.

Disney spokeswoman Lisa Arney declined to comment on the company’s plans.

Disney was awarded a patent for the technology, which it calls Flixels, in November 2014, suggesting the puppets could be “blimp-sized.”

At the time, it said the company had never been able to bring its flying characters to life. Its drone marionettes would be a big step up, it said, from parade balloons or video projections.

“Many characters fly in their stories (such as in a book or movie), but, prior to the inventors’ aerial displays, it was typically not technically feasible to create a flying object that mimics the characters,” the company wrote in its patent.

It’s not clear when Disney might be able to start using drones in its fireworks shows. While recreational drone users only have to register online, the Federal Aviation Administration approves commercial uses on a case-by-case basis. Disney’s application was opened for public comment last week.

Most applications to the FAA fall into a few categories, like aerial photography or surveying. But Disney’s application is unique: Orlando-based aviation lawyer Guy Haggard said he hadn’t seen anything like it.

To complicate things further, Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in California are both federal no-fly zones, meaning the company will have to get extra permission from the FAA.

Still, Haggard said he expected the company would get that permission, and Disney argued that the no-fly zone would ensure that its drones don’t tangle with other aircraft.

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