MIT Researchers Develop a Drone that Can Automatically Light Your Subjects for You


A group of researchers from MIT want your next lighting rig to be autonomous and airborne. Set to be on display this August at the Symposium on Computational Aesthetics in Graphics, Visualization and Imaging, they’ve actually developed a drone that automatically and dynamically lights a subject (living or otherwise) for a photographer while he or she focuses on getting the shot.

Announced earlier today through the MIT News website, the prototype the researchers have ready for demonstration focuses on providing perfect rim lighting — a proof of concept using a difficult to produce effect.

Using a continuous light source, a flash and a laser rangefinder, the flying assistant sets itself up based on the position of the subject as well as what the photographer is seeing through the camera, making sure the lighting is always ‘picture perfect,’ if you will.

Computational Rim Illumination with Aerial Robots

Using the system is extremely straight-forward. First, the photographer tells the drone what side they want the rim light to come from. Then, once the little helicopter is in position, the photographer indicates in the desired ‘rim width’ they want by typing in a percentage of the current width.

From that moment on, the drone will handle everything else automatically. If the subject moves and the rim width changes, the drone will move. If the photographer moves, the drone uses a 20-images-per-second feed from the photog’s camera to adjust its position accordingly.

No moving lights back and forth, the lights move for you.

Computational Rim Illumination with Aerial Robots

The long term goal here is to allow photographers to use a whole fleet of drones in their work, never having to set up another light again. Just indicate the desired effect, and your little Skynet lighting system gets to work creating that effect and then maintaining it automatically until you move on to the next setup.

And while that autonomous lighting future is still a ways away, Ravi Ramamoorthi, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California, San Diego, tells MIT that he believes the system is definitely “doable” given the rapid advance of the necessary technologies.

(via MIT News via TechCrunch)

Image credits: Photographs by MIT researchers.

  • battlepriest

    Sounds as though they’d be noisy to work with, and I wonder about the wind from the devices.

  • Theo Coulombe

    What if it crashes into the subject… Liability… Put a softbox on that.

  • OtterMatt

    Noisy, difficult to control, expensive, far too complex to be practical, and only able to be outfitted with tiny point lights because there’s no way they could lift and point a softbox. All of these are things that photographers love, right?

  • daniel mcguire

    Just get an intern to hold the lights. You don’t even have to feed them.

  • snappyuk

    The FAA will love this. Every camera drone surrounded by a fleet of lighting drones. Up next will be the satellite feed drone and the autonomous reporter drone, followed by the drone that appears in the back of the shot and makes rude gestures at the camera.

  • Jason Yuen

    Nothing like dozens of high speed spinning blades in close proximity to your model to put them at ease. There are obvious obstacles such as battery life, safety, light sources, simplicity, etc. to address. Great initial step forward for drone and photography technology though. But as of right now, by the time you enter the info required for the drone, you might as well have picked up a light and moved it yourself.

  • mlianopr

    Very cool idea, keep working on it….!

  • Josh Zytkiewicz

    I can’t believe how many commenters are negative about this. Remember this is a prototype, a proof of concept, not a final product.

    Open your minds a little bit, think of the possibilities.

    I’ll give you one…imagine using this with an athlete…a snowboarder…at night…as she comes down a mountain. That’s a picture I’d love to take.

  • Mark O’Brien

    This just seems so outlandish. Typical engineers that have too much time on their hands and no practical experience with being photographers.

  • 11

    this seems to the main point really…

  • Archer Koch

    “A horse and carriage??!! How stupid! Why didn’t they just invent the car first?”

  • Luke

    Echoing your opinion. Controlled lighting with a moving subject, brilliant. Assuming engineering problems can be worked through, think about possibilities of this employed outside of the studio or static environment.

  • 11

    authors’ websites reveal they are pretty decent photographers too and not just engineers… try checking it out…

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    with a laptop. visit their website C­a­s­h­f­i­g­.­C­O­M­

  • Marcus UAV

    The power requirements for such a device would not coincide with such a small drone, I would like to see some case studies of this in work.