A Q&A with Mark Ager of Stage Technologies, who is featured on two panels at LDI2009

1) How does Stage Technologies do research and development for new technologies, to keep abreast of industry needs?

Our research and development is primarily user focused rather than technology led. From conversations (some formal, others less so) with users around the world from all the various sectors in which we work, we gain insights into what the user would like to achieve. We then throw those ideas around and search out the technologies that would be best to deliver those. We are lucky in that there are a wealth of other industries that have developed technologies that can be applied to the theatre.

Recently, for instance, we were asked to automate some large, 1-tonne LED screens suspended on 14' wires that needed to move together horizontally, so we looked at anti-sway technology in cranes. Another demanding technical requirement has been for our latest project for Cirque du SoleilViva Elvis in Las Vegas, which requires a free ranging truck system that can roam all over the stage. In this application we needed to report the position of the stage truck to maintain micro-accuracy. We found a laser scanner system used extensively in the automated warehousing environment to control robotic forklift trucks and so we simply applied the technology to the theatre environment.

2) Please describe the technical challenges of some of the recent projects and how they were solved?

Our major technical challenge over the last few months has been for Viva Elvis. For this show we have supplied one of our largest automation systems ever installed for a single production. In addition to a whole lot of standard winches and drives, we have also supplied new variants of our radio controlled trolley winch systems. In general our approach to solving the technical challenges is to take our existing range of product, and then add or modify components to produce a new and unique effect. For instance, the trolley winch system uses standard winches and control system architecture, with innovative mechanical solutions especially in the provision of friction drive mechanism for the trolley to meet the high accelerations required by the system.

3) How were standards for automation developed? Are they international?

There have been very few specific standards for the theatre automation industry until the last few years. In Europe the various standards for machinery are used. These cover both the electrical and mechanical areas.

In the past few years there have been a number of attempts by various countries to write an industry specific standard for theatre machinery, notably in the UK, Germany, Sweden, and Holland, as well as in the USA. The European industry came together 2 years ago to create a new pan-European standard for theatre engineering, now published under CWA25. This references the various machinery standards available in Europe including EN61508. This is a new standard for computer-related safety equipment which will have major implications for the industry over the coming years.

4) In your crystal ball, what is the next big thing in stage automation technology and control?

That it will become far more widespread, becoming mainstream within the next 10 years, and ever more sophisticated effects will be possible. Particularly interesting is the possibility of link-ins to other theatre systems, specifically lighting, sound and video. As the age of automation increases, more attention will be paid to the lifetime of the systems and the total cost of ownership.

5) Who should attend your automation sessions in the Cirque TENT at LDI?

We're presenting two automation sessions this year.

The first, about the future of automation, should be attended by anyone who might be specifying, using, or designing automation systems, and even those using manual systems at the moment. It will highlight future possibilities for designers, and how automation will affect theatre operations.

The second talk is around the relatively new (and quite complex) computer standard for computer-based safety standard EN61508. Although the standard is European, it is currently the only standard worldwide and is emerging as a best practice in this important area. It is of interest to anyone using computers in theatre automation systems and indeed anyone using electronic and software systems in a environment that has specific health and safety requirements.