How do mass drone displays work?

As Australia burned through 2019’s devastating Black Summer, a petition circulated calling for the cancellation of Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks show. While the spectacular display of pyrotechnics has been an annual tradition since 1976, some thought it would be tasteless amidst the ongoing bushfires. There were also general concerns about the safety of shooting off sparks in hot, dry weather.

“It’s time for change,” wrote organiser Linda McCormick on the site. “Australia has seen enough fire!”

The show ultimately went ahead, however the petition gathered over 370,000 signatures and ignited conversations about potential alternatives. One of the most popular suggestions was drone light shows: coordinated aerial displays featuring numerous quadcopters working together to create shapes in the sky out of points of light.

“You can’t rely on people to be responsible with fireworks,” signatory Susan Fahey commented under the petition. “Fireworks displays are unnecessary when you can have amazing drone light shows.”

It sounded like an obvious solution. Reusable drones are much less of a fire hazard than fireworks, while potentially being as dazzling. However, making the pivot to drones is much more complicated than it may initially appear.

Drones Down Under

“You won’t find any experts in Australia on drone light shows,” says Global Drone Solutions CEO Mahmood Hussein. “The simple reason is that this is relatively new technology.”

Despite its international name, Global Drone Solutions is an Australian company that offers training to domestic drone pilots. Yet while drone light shows have been a possibility for years, the company doesn’t yet offer any courses in this specialised field. Singapore ushered in 2020 with a 500-drone light show, and in September a display of 3,051 drones in China set a record for the most simultaneously airborne unmanned aerial vehicles. Drones appeared at the US’s 2019 Super Bowl and at President Biden’s victory speech in November 2020. But Australia remains largely focused on exploring more immediately practical functions for drone technology.

Drone show in guangzhou, china.
Guangzhou, China. Credit: VCG / Getty Images

“Some of the popular applications are in mining, oil and gas exploration, construction, agriculture and infrastructure industries,” says Hussein. “The number of drone applications has exploded over the past five years.”

Staging light shows has been a far less common use of drones in Australia so far. Some shows have been done: in 2016, for example, Intel staged a 100-drone show during Vivid Sydney, flying a stylised silhouette of the Opera House over Sydney Harbour. But there are numerous barriers stalling adoption, including high costs, strict regulatory requirements and the fact that the technology is still in its infancy.

Still, Hussein believes Australia’s drone use is only going to grow. Having been in the drone industry for seven years, he optimistically projects drone light shows will soon gain a skyhold in Australia.

“I can see fireworks being replaced in the next few years, as a number of large organisations and universities have started to invest in this area, the cost of drones and software is becoming less expensive, and computer power and technology like 5G will certainly make it a more viable alternative,” says Hussein. “And we must not forget, it is environmentally friendly.”

Drone show and tell

The sight, sound and gunpowder smell of fireworks will always provide its own unique thrill. Yet drone light shows offer a level of control, customisation and complexity that pyrotechnics simply cannot match. To perform a drone show, multiple quadcopters coordinate to fly in programmed, preset patterns, tracing out shapes in the sky that are often choreographed to music. With lights attached to the drones, the result looks similar to brightly coloured moving stars or animated pixel art at a very low resolution.

“Drone shows can be fully customised to create anything imaginable, and also offer significant environmental advantages,” says Ryan Sigmon, co-founder of Firefly Drone Shows, based in Michigan in the US. “We’ve noticed large brands gravitating towards drone light shows, as their messaging can be clearly recreated in the sky. We’ve also seen large cities adopt drone light shows to avoid polluted air and debris that is left behind from large pyrotechnic displays.”

Though drone light shows vary significantly in size, Verge Aero CEO Nils Thorjussen considers 150 to 200 drones to be the “sweet spot”. The Pennsylvania-based company has years of experience in these events. “One can create a lot of content with this and it’s a manageable number,” Thorjussen says.

Both Verge Aero and Firefly top out their performances at 300 drones, though Firefly plans to increase that count soon. Still, Sigmon agrees that large numbers of drones aren’t needed to create an impact.

“Our clients have realised that 100 or 200 drones can go a long way from a creative standpoint,” he says. “Our 100 drone performances typically include formations spanning around 150 metres.”

Most light show performances use fleets of small quadcopters – helicopters with four rotors. Each quadcopter is mounted with a bright LED light which can turn on and off, as well as change colour when needed. The drones are also relatively lightweight, as they don’t have to carry cameras or other equipment. Intel’s Shooting Star drones weigh just 330g – less than a jar of Vegemite. This means they significantly differ in size, shape and weight from drones used for surveying, photography or delivery.

The lighter a drone, the less power it needs to get it in the air. However, it then becomes a question of balance. Drones with larger batteries store more power, but they also use more power due to their weight. Drones with smaller batteries have less power, but their lighter weight means they don’t need as much juice to get airborne.

“Drone show animation is a new field. That means there are no best practices or tutorials out there on the internet. Every trick or approach you come up with is an innovation.”

This dichotomy dictates how long drones can stay in the air, and thus how long a performance can be. Verge Aero’s shows average around 10 to 12 minutes, their drones lasting aloft for 15 minutes maximum. Firefly offers drone shows up to 15 minutes long.

“Battery life is the primary driver behind show lengths,” said Sigmon, noting that Firefly is developing new hardware to push flight lengths to over 20 minutes.

Fifteen minutes doesn’t seem long. But the Sydney New Year’s Eve fireworks usually run for around 12 minutes, demonstrating that it’s more than enough time to dazzle a crowd. It all depends on what you do with it.

Light club

In theory, a drone light show looks like a simple matter of pre-programming a few hundred quadcopters and letting them fly. In fact, it is an extremely complex job involving a lot of emergent technology, as Martins Upitis, lead drone show animator at Base Motion, has explained. “Drone show animation is a new field. That means that there are no best practices or tutorials out there on the internet. Every trick or approach you come up with is an innovation.”

With no standard approach, there is no right or wrong way to stage a show. Even so, there are common steps that most displays tend to share.

1. Clear skies ahead

“We always start by confirming a location that meets our safety requirements,” says Sigmon. This isn’t as simple as finding a clear patch of sky, as the relevant aviation authorities must be satisfied. In the US, that’s the Federal Aviation Authority, whose regulations forbid drones being flown over people and crowds, and require a large safety perimeter around any performance.

“This sometimes makes it challenging flying near densely populated areas,” says Sigmon. “We often close down waterways or roads in order to secure our safety zones.”

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) enforces the laws in Australia. Anyone flying drones for commercial purposes must hold a remote pilot licence, as well as either hold or work for an organisation that holds a remotely piloted operator’s certificate. And as drone light shows involve more than one drone, those hoping to stage one also need to obtain specific approval from CASA.

“It is likely drone light shows will become more common and CASA will carefully assess applications as they are made,” CASA’s Peter Gibson told Cosmos. “Our aim is to not get in the way of innovative drone use, while of course ensuring public safety is not put at unacceptable risk.”

2. Getting with the program

If you do manage to run the regulation gauntlet and are confident the cops won’t shut down your party before it starts, the performance must then be storyboarded. It’s during this step that the displayed shapes, music and synchronisation are worked out, whether it’s a movie logo, marriage proposal, or giant internet meme.

A computer animation is then created from this storyboard to provide a preview of the show, allowing the designers to visualise and tweak it before the drones ever take flight. This also lets them sort out any problems, potential collisions and even potential viewing angles.

“Our animation previews are verbatim to what will be seen in the night sky,” says Sigmon. In fact, many of the basic steps involved in creating a drone light show are strikingly similar to those in making an animated film. 3D animation software is frequently used, with programs such as the Drone Show Software translating animations directly into commands and flight paths for the drones to follow. A lack of industry standard tools has led companies such as Firefly and Verge Aero to develop their own software, but the general principles are the same.

“It’s exactly like 3D animation,” says Thorjussen. “The software does all the work!”

Despite the similarities, switching from Disney to drones is no simple matter, and there is still a steep learning curve for animators who wish to make the leap between mediums. Like pinning a dress around a magazine model, 3D animators can use angles and framing to tuck messy elements out of sight, but there’s nowhere to hide in drone animation. Each show must be designed to be viewed from all angles, so animators need to be sure they don’t have a bad side.

Pair this with the relative dearth of jobs in drone performance, and there isn’t much incentive to switch careers – just one more factor helping keep the industry small and scarcity high.

3. Flying high

Coordinating 150 pilots to fly 150 drones at once would be a logistical nightmare. Fortunately, not every drone in a light show needs its own individual pilot. Instead they are controlled by a central computer, relying on emergent swarm technology to get the job done. As such, the ground crew looking after the performance only needs to be relatively small.

Swarm technology enables multiple drones to communicate with each other like bees, working together towards a shared end goal rather than having each drone’s flight path individually prescribed. Using GPS or radio frequencies to position themselves, drones can wirelessly chat to each other to ensure they maintain their spacing and avoid collisions. They can also determine which of the drones is best suited for each job required to bring the show to life.

All this automation doesn’t remove humans from the equation. Aside from the fact that CASA requires a pilot to be present, people still need to position the drones and be on hand for any last minute adjustments.

“Though the show is pre-programmed, the launch and position of the show must be calculated at the location,” says Sigmon. “Various on-site tests are conducted to ensure the audience will have the best experience.”

Pie in the sky?

As dazzling as drone light shows may be, there are significant barriers preventing them from being more widely employed. In addition to strict regulations and a low supply of workers with relevant training or experience, the prohibitive cost of drone performances is a powerful deterrent. Fireworks displays can come at a fraction of the price.

Small drone light shows can cost around $25,000 according to Thorjussen, with average prices ranging from $65,000 to $130,000. Intel’s performances start at $130,000 for 200 drones, and that only involves 2D shapes.

“The costs of a drone light show tend to vary as there are always many factors involved,” says Sigmon. “The quantity of drones flown for an event, as well as the amount of custom animation, tend to be our biggest drivers.”

The future of fireworks

Though many spectators see drone light shows as an alternative or competitor to fireworks, not all industry professionals consider it a matter of one or the other. Singapore may have celebrated New Year’s Eve with a giant Merlion made of drones floating above Marina Bay, but it appeared alongside the country’s more traditional fireworks display.

Rather than supplanting pyrotechnics, drone light shows are viewed as a complement to their fiery predecessors – a little added spice.

“Firefly never set out to replace or compete against the pyro industry,” says Sigmon. “Instead, we wanted to introduce a completely new form of entertainment to the world and allow consumers to make the decision for themselves.”

“I think that, over time, budgets will shift from fireworks to drones,” says Thorjussen. “Firework shows are already being replaced. This trend will only accelerate. But that doesn’t mean that fireworks will go away any time soon.”

It will likely be at least a few more years before drone lights shows are even incorporated into Sydney’s New Year’s celebrations, much less replace the fireworks entirely. Even so, they might join the party sooner than you’d think.

“In situations such as the New Year’s Eve displays where much of the activity is on the harbour, the risks may not be too complex to successfully manage,” says Gibson.

There are still many hurdles for drone light shows to overcome before they’re commonplace. Tradition is difficult to break, and new technology takes time to refine. But the future always arrives more quickly than we expect. 

This story was republished from issue 91 Winter 2021, subscribe today and get access to our quarterly magazine in print or digital, plus access to all back issues of Cosmos magazine.

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