Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Drone Light Shows
“Amazing”, “Beautiful”, “Incredible”, “Unreal”, “Brought tears to my eyes”.
These are all comments that repeatedly appeared in response to a viral Facebook video of a drone light show that Verge Aero flew to show gratitude for healthcare and essential workers in Philadelphia. The response was overwhelming, and these words demonstrate that when properly executed, drone light shows are a mesmerizing and powerful experience. Since then, we’ve received many questions about our technology, and we’d like to share our responses with a wider audience.
What is a drone light show, exactly?
Drone light shows are performed by illuminated, synchronized, and choreographed groups of drones that arrange themselves into various aerial formations. Almost any image can be recreated in the sky by a computer program that turns graphics into flight commands and communicates them to the drones.
In recent years, drone shows have migrated from the university laboratory to being deployed at scale on prominent events around the world. We were originally inspired by this 2012 TED video featuring the University of Pennsylvania’s Dean of Engineering, Vijay Kumar, demonstrating drone fleets doing all kinds of stunning maneuvers. Later, pioneering work was done in Europe by the Spaxels Research Initiative, Collmot, and Verity. Intel has done the most to popularize the concept, flying drone shows on big events such as the Super Bowl halftime show and the Winter Olympics.
How do drone shows work?
Let’s clear up one thing first: drone light shows are not powered by Skynet, the artificial intelligence network depicted in The Terminator! Drones used in shows are not self-aware, can’t think for themselves, and make no real-time decisions. Instead, like obedient servants, they follow specific commands sent to them and can’t deviate!
The process for creating a show is quite straightforward. First, the design team creates a storyboard timeline showing the desired images and effects. These looks are then animated in a specialized piece of software that translates them into synchronized flight paths for each drone, and usually a soundtrack is created to accompany the show. Complete shows are sent to the drones via radio signal from a ground control station operated by a pilot. When the pilot is satisfied that everything is safe and ready to go, the show starts, and the drones take off to draw the storyboard in the sky.
Creating a system that can be flown safely and repeatedly requires a lot of clever engineering work. Verge Aero’s drones and software were designed by our engineers specifically for performing shows. Our custom drones are missing some things normally found on drones, like cameras, and include unique features, such as a blindingly bright LED light source.
Verge Aero’s design software lets users select graphics and special effects and place them in a timeline, similar to those found in video editing software. This software calculates the flight paths of each drone to guarantee they don’t collide in the air, and generates a full 3D rendering of the show to ensure it looks exactly as intended. Every drone is sent a unique program and the ground control station monitors each drone over a local, encrypted network for maximum safety.
The flight crew uses a detailed dashboard display on the ground station to prepare drones for flight and continuously monitor status. The drones themselves carry multiple radios operating simultaneously, away from busy WiFi frequencies, to ensure communications are maintained even in busy and noisy radio environments.
Shows are flown by certified pilots, experts in relevant aviation subject matter, including regulations and weather. Prior to every show, checklists are used to make sure everything is in order: drones are fully operational, batteries are charged, and the flight area is clear. Once these checks are complete, the pilot presses GO and the drones take off on their mission!
Will drones replace fireworks?
Fireworks shows are increasingly criticized for their negative environmental impact—they are noisy, polluting, and wasteful. Concerns are regularly raised around their impact on sensitive wildlife populations, as well as military veterans experiencing PTSD. What’s more, in many locations, fireworks displays have been banned altogether, due to the increased risk of wildfires.
These and other factors have led many people to consider replacing fireworks displays with alternatives—and drone light shows are perfectly positioned to fill the gap.
In many cases, drone shows have been used successfully as a great complement to fireworks displays. However, as a new and exciting form of entertainment, drones have much more to offer. They are capable of a far greater range of effects than fireworks, and their capacity for sophisticated choreography gives them vastly more potential for storytelling in the sky. Drones can also be deployed in more constrained environments where fireworks would never be allowed.
When you think about it, fireworks actually have quite a limited repertoire. Usually, a handful of effects are repeated over and over again, just in varying combinations, sizes, colors and intensities. Why settle for this when you can have dynamic, repositionable 3D pixels capable of generating virtually unlimited imagery? Drones offer far more creative options than fireworks. In fact, it’s easy to envision that as drone shows become more commonplace, people will one day look back on fireworks displays as being quite mundane in comparison.
Regardless, the transition from fireworks to drones will happen gradually. Fireworks shows will be with us for some time to come, if for no other reason than that they are fairly inexpensive to stage. But as drone shows become more affordable, we can expect to see events using them more frequently.
Why haven’t I seen more shows?
Even Wal-Mart now sells drones, so why aren’t we seeing more light shows? The problem is that successful show execution requires different technologies that are only now maturing. Innovations usually take time to disseminate, and drone shows are no different. A number of factors have limited the uptake of drone shows before now:
- High cost
- Need for regulatory approval
- Expensive and limited insurance options
- Labor intensive operations
- Lack of efficient show design tools
- Safety requirement
The use of specialized drones with high-precision avionics drives high cost. Labor intensive operations also contribute, whether it’s wrangling rudimentary control software or preparing finicky drones for flight.
High operating expenses are possibly acceptable for the Super Bowl or the Olympics, but are not viable for most events. Nonetheless, things are changing, and Verge Aero’s innovations are helping to make drone light shows more accessible to a far wider range of budgets.
How much do drone light shows cost?
Like many new technologies, drone light shows were extremely expensive at first, and they’re still more expensive than desired. But as with computers and flat panel TVs, prices are decreasing overtime. Drone light shows will go mainstream as the technology matures. The tools developed by VergeAero already make it possible to do more for less!
The main driver of cost is the number of drones being flown. It clearly costs a lot more to put on a 500-drone show than a 50-drone show. In addition to the drones themselves, labor, freight, and logistics all add expense.
A small show that’s easy to deploy costs as little as $20,000. But larger and more complicated shows can easily cost many times this number. Here’s a list of factors that impact price:
- Drone quantity
- Show design complexity
- Show coordination and rehearsal time
- Airspace authorization and regulatory compliance
- Shipping and logistics
- Crew travel and accommodation
What is Verge Aero doing differently?
To make drone shows more affordable, we introduced a few innovations to streamline the process and reduce the amount of work required.
Simplified Show Design
Historically, drone light shows were manually created using a series of applications including animation software like Blender — which was an extremely tedious and limiting process. Even worse, the programmer had to check that vertices in Blender never overlapped during animation, because that would mean drones colliding in the air. The output then needed to be transferred to at least one more program to prepare for flight. All this is an extremely unsafe process because it’s prone to human error.
A far better way is to use a unified software application with an easy-to-use interface, like the Verge Aero Design Studio, which automatically handles the anti-collision calculations. Cues are created in the built-in animation software and easily manipulated. Once the design process is complete, the software removes the possibility of human error by deconflicting flight paths, identifying potential issues or mistakes in the show design, and simulating the performance via a rendering pipeline—all without any human intervention.
This software allows designers to generate content with a few key presses, instead of through the laborious processes of using animation tools or writing code. Effects such as complex flocking, as seen in this All of Us music video by PNAU, are automatically created by an effects generator in the Verge Aero Design Studio. Effects created by one designer can easily be shared with others. All this allows designers to focus on making shows look good, instead of being swamped in unnecessary drudgery.
Simplified Show Operations
Previously, it took many hours to set up a show because each drone needed to be loaded with its own flight path and placed in the correct starting location. Again, this process was laborious and prone to human error. Operations flow much better when:
- Each drone has a full copy of the show so that they can be placed in any takeoff slot.
- Drones indicate when they’re in a suitable location during placement in the grid.
- The ground station software automatically checks drone flight readiness and placement.
- It’s quick and easy to swap out any drone that’s not ready for flight.
These simple operational improvements result in a seamless experience and eliminate tedium. Instead, pilots can focus on mission critical items such as drone airworthiness and airspace safety.
All drones must coordinate with the Verge Aero global database to synchronize maintenance schedules and perform software updates. Maintenance (e.g. replacing the motors and batteries) is uncomplicated and software updates happen wirelessly. The operator can efficiently manage all the drones in their fleet with a minimum of effort.
Together, these innovations dramatically reduce the time and manpower required to set up a drone performance. For example, it normally takes two people from Verge Aero no more than 45 minutes to set up and fly 100 drones. This keeps costs down, accelerating the uptake of the technology and allowing more people to experience shows.
How Many Drones Are Needed for a Show?
Not as many as you might think!
Much press attention has been devoted to Guinness world records set for ever larger numbers of drones, with the record currently being held by Intel with 2,066 simultaneous airborne drones in performance. This is an incredible technical feat with stunning results. But it doesn’t take thousands of drones to create compelling content.
One reason why early drone shows focused on large numbers is that the drones were not very bright and did not accurately hold position. Therefore, content was designed so that the drones would fill a volume of space to illuminate it, and this required many drones. In other words, rather than draw a straight line with individual drones, a rectangle was drawn and filled with drones. A great example of this is the Time Magazine cover flown by Intel.
In contrast, Verge Aero drones are much brighter and hold their position precisely by supplementing GPS with additional positional data sent from the ground station. This enables more creative flexibility and allows the same effect to be achieved with fewer drones. We can now precisely draw lines in 3D with drones.
Of course, the number of drones required depends on exactly what you’re trying to achieve. Complex logos will always require more drones to accurately represent them in the air. The more intricate the shape, the more drones are needed to create it. Likewise, audience size and viewing distance will influence how many drones are needed to make the required visual impact.
That said, it doesn’t take a huge number of drones to create an impressive show. For a small event, even 50 drones can go a long way; amazing work has been done with fleets this small. Like any artistic endeavor, it’s all about how the tools are used.
Are drone shows safe?
If properly executed by professional teams, drone shows are extremely safe, as Intel has demonstrated with their perfect safety record over the past four years. Unfortunately, not everyone is operating drones at the same high level. At Verge Aero, safety is the number one priority in all our operations. Here are some of our key safety measures:
There must be a safe distance between the drones and the audience. Multiple barriers, known as geofences, are built into the shows to prevent drones from straying away from the safe-flight zone.
High Quality Drones
Fully integrated hardware optimized for flying drone shows gives the best performance and is the safest option. Every drone component is optimized and built to the highest standard. Repurposing inexpensive third-party drones will never yield the best results.
Multiple radios operating in different frequency bands ensure communications are always maintained during flight. Similarly, the autopilot software runs on a separate processor to the mission control software, so if one fails, the drone will still return home safely.
Flight Path Safety
Our unified software application guarantees flight paths will not intersect, ensuring drones will not collide. There is no opportunity for the introduction of software bugs during show handoff from one application to another.
Compliance with FAA regulations, the use of commercial pilots and checklists, and a culture of safety all contribute to safe and successful show execution.
Early drone shows consisted of a series of simple graphics that transitioned from one to another, much like a marching band might go from one look to another on the field. Improved design tools and control technology allow Verge Aero to move beyond this. Drone shows will become ever more impressive as designers push the boundaries of what’s possible with innovative show designs. The drones themselves will evolve as different lighting elements and effects are attached to create ever more stunning shows.
We are still at the beginning of a new and exciting medium of live entertainment. Stay tuned! It’s going to be a fantastic ride.
This article was written by Nils Thorjussen and Tony Samaritano of Verge Aero.