Over the past decade, automation has gradually been shifting from something that scene shops and rigging companies do in-house as part of their construction efforts to a business in its own right. Las Vegas-based Fisher Technical Services, Inc. (FTSI) provides automation controls and machinery for the entertainment industry and builds complicated automated scenic pieces, including one of the most sophisticated theatrical automated props ever built: the chandelier for Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular [LD, August 2006].

FTSI's advances in automation control, including the Navigator Automation System, have been adopted by shops, theatre consultants, and other end-users as an alternative to the previous time-consuming DIY approach. “As the technology becomes more of a commodity, it provides more and more productions and venues with the ability to utilize the dramatic, technical, and safety advantages of a modern automation system at an affordable price,” says Scott Fisher, president/CEO of the company.

What It Does

The Navigator Automation System is a completely scalable and configurable automation and motion control system. Think of it as Lego® Mindstorms® on steroids. The system can run anything from a single winch, to an enormous multi-object, interrelated 3D flight system, and everything in between. The user interface is completely configurable to display only the information required and only at the level of detail that the operator desires, making the same software applicable to simple theatrical applications or gigantic Las Vegas spectaculars. Specific toolsets and features are included to support different areas of the entertainment industry such as theatres, theme parks, motion picture productions, and stunts. Users can employ only the tools they need and easily expand the system capabilities. Motion control, safety systems, I/O devices, show control functions, industrial protocols, DMX, SMPTE, 3D environment construction and control, as well as integration of machinery from other manufacturers and shops are all included — and all cooperating — all the time, in realtime.

“Navigator is designed to provide the kind of speed, programming flexibility, and connectivity that promotes and supports the point-and-click theatre paradigm,” says Fisher. “It is designed in a building-block architecture, where every piece of the system is individually smart,” Fisher adds. “Every winch, operator console, safety device, remote station, or other system element is not only able to manage its own internal processes, but it can also network with any number of other devices in a larger system and share any information about itself across the network in realtime.”

The bottom line is that Navigator is intended to turn a theatre into a more integrated machine, still retaining an enormous amount of fault tolerance. “This allows operators to very easily do things like automatic collision control,” continues Fisher. “All of the machinery knows where all the other machinery is in the physical space — from inter-axis permissives to really basic, utilitarian tasks, to inter-discipline coordination like ‘if lighting DMX channel is at 50% or less, then bring in main curtain.’ Obviously, it also has basic automation features — basic motion control, I/O control, cueing, and sequencing tools, etc. — but the nature of the realtime, non-platform specific, automatic interconnectivity is where the primary strength of the system lies.”

The non-platform specific part is a huge benefit, as it does not tie system designers and theatre consultants to a specific technology. It will run FTSI machinery, other manufacturers' machinery, chain hoists, and lifts; it will talk to lighting, video, and audio systems; and it will do all that without breaking the paradigm that all connected devices can share information and act on that information whenever desired.

“While the face of the system is the software and consoles, the entire Navigator System encompasses that as well as all of the winches and motion controllers, I/O, and external system interfaces, safety and emergency stop systems, and other system elements,” says Fisher. “They are all designed and built to be plug-and-play ready, so entire systems can be built up from a comprehensive set of building blocks.”

How It Came To Be

The principals of the company were all automation operators and technicians on big shows — mostly in Las Vegas — from the late ‘80s through the late ‘90s. “Like most automation operators on big shows during that period, we were frustrated by the general clunkiness of the systems that were available,” comments Fisher. “This, in turn, generated a big wish list. Those experiences informed the design process and goals for the Navigator System — it's definitely a system by operators, for operators.”

The first generation of Navigator used technology available from a manufacturer of industrial automation equipment, and FTSI created software to be programmed for shows by theatre technicians. “As more complex projects continued to come our way,” continues Fisher, “we quickly found that the limitations of that approach were keeping us from moving the system into what we saw as the next level, where programming of complex systems was much faster, safer, and more flexible and where all kinds of machinery could be easily placed under the same control system and interface, regardless of the manufacturer of the machinery.” The company then embarked on a ground-up rebuild of the system. The next generation system was rolled out in 2003 at the new Wynn resort in Las Vegas.

What's In Store For The Future

“Our primary plans for the future are to take all of this great technology and package it for use by more standard venues and users,” says Fisher. “We plan to make the entire system more accessible to theatre consultants and other specifiers so that they can utilize all of the benefits of the Navigator System in an economical and user-friendly package.”

What End Users Have To Say

Eric Pearce, one of the owners of SGPS, Inc./ShowRig (www.sgps.net) based in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, says his company is running the Navigator System software on the B'z tour in Japan as well as on Rascal Flatts and other projects. “Among the things we particularly like is that it is designed to run an entire show,” says Pearce, “whether it is a scenic piece that is moving or a flying piece — no matter what it is — anything that is automated in the show can all be controlled by the one operator.” Pearce also appreciates its ability to make global adjustments from one venue to the next with different trim heights. “You tell it the trim height, and it will adjust all your cues accordingly,” he says. As to improvements, Pearce can't point to one item since, he says, “We are in a constant dialogue about how it operates. In the touring market and the film industry, we are much more concerned with speed of programming and improvising — overriding cues more than a normal theatrical production. We are always trying to find ways to tweak things. We would like to see it become the industry standard…I think it would be a wonderful thing if the majority of the rental houses used the same control, and there would be a body of trained operators available to do these particular shows.”

Howard Dolan, head carpenter at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, has been using Fisher Technical Services products for over seven years and has just upgraded to the most current version of Navigator. Dolan likes Navigator because it's easy and quiet. “Fisher's support is also great,” Dolan adds. “Their stuff runs great; it will stop within an eighth of an inch every time, every single night.” Dolan particularly likes the ease of programming using the latest system, he says, “where you can do 3D flying and all kinds of things that we really don't get into yet. As far as the features go, I have not run into anything that I really need to have changed.”

Rob DeCeglio has been using the Fisher Navigator System as head of automation on the recent Bon Jovi Lost Highway Tour and most recently on the upcoming Radio City Christmas Spectacular tour, both done through Tait Towers. He and Adam Davis, vice president of Tait Towers (www.taittowers.com), shared their thoughts about the Navigator System. “We have integrated the Fisher Navigator software with all of our own custom hardware,” says Davis. “Tait Towers is building the mechanics — the motion controllers, the hardware, and the cabling — and then running it all with the software from Fisher to make it all happen.”

DeCeglio also likes the system's flexibility. “It will run pretty much anything that we are building right now, which is amazing. A key feature for me would be the flexibility in editing a cue. This was especially useful on Bon Jovi, with a new set list every night. I would program the automation during the opening act.”

Both DeCeglio and Davis are hesitant to suggest changes. “We are blown away with the service that we get and how we can do live updates,” says Davis. “If you look at shows we are preparing now, we are controlling hydraulics, pneumatics, servo motors, DC motors, AC vector motors — just about anything you can imagine — and running it through that system. It has allowed us to do more complicated automation effects than we previously thought possible because the software allows so much versatility in how you program things and in how you link things together.”

For further information, visit www.fishertechnical.com.