21.03.19

The future of drone light shows

Pyramid

Tim Kridel speaks to Li Zhiyuan, vice president of Ehang Egret and Raffaello D’Andrea, founder and CEO of Verity Studios

Li Zhiyuan, EHang Egret vice president, explained how large a drone fleet can become, exploring the concept of the drone swarm. 

TK: You completed a drone show featuring 1,374 drones, how much larger could drone light shows get over the next few years? 5,000 drones? 10,000 drones? And what kinds of displays could those massive swarms enable? Would more drones make it possible to create a light show that covers several miles/kilometres rather than a smaller area, such as a stadium?

LZ: Technically we have the capacity of 5,000 or 10,000 or even more, because we have an intelligence command and control system to range all of our drones. But such a big show will be limited by lots of factors, like we have to apply for the certification of the airspace first, which will definitely be very large.

We just finished a drone formation show in Haikou on the Lantern Festival, using 800 drones. In addition to continuously optimising the technology, we are also working on the design, switching 2D patterns to 3D patterns, making incredible visual effects.

TK: How closely can you fly drones to each other? I ask because I’m interested whether tighter spacing between each drone would enable different types of effects, such as a swarm that looks more like a giant HD video screen in the sky.

LZ: The distance between each drone is 1.5m to 3m.

TK: Besides the City Wall of Xi’an, what are some other shows that you’re particularly proud of? And why? For example, what made them challenging to produce?

LZ: We would like to highlight the drone formation show we performed in February 2017, Chinese Lantern Festival, EHang put on a “Meteor Sky” 1000 UAVs formation and light show in Canton Tower of Guangzhou.

During that period of time, most of UAV formation shows are in need of manual control, but EHang had already capable of automatic command and control. Actually, EHang is the world’s first commercialised autonomous UAV formation performance.

TK: I’d like to give readers more information about how EHang Egret’s intelligent drone formation command cloud system works. For example, could you describe the basic process of how you use the system to design and produce a show? Do you use storyboards to develop the animation on a computer, and then upload that data to the cloud system to guide the drones? Can a single pilot use your system to control the entire drone fleet?

LZ: All of EHang’s UAV are connected, so the process is like, designers set out a pattern first, engineers will write a program for every performance UAV. With the help of globally leading UAV swarm control system, EHang enables one person to control over 1,000 UAVs using one computer.

TK: How do you ensure safety of fans/attendees/patrons, as well as performers/players/musicians? For example, with an indoor area concert, how do you make sure that the drones don’t fly into a loudspeaker line array, or cables, or roof trusses? Does your cloud system help with safety, or is that a separate process?

LZ: EHang values safety the most. In terms of communication, which is one of the most important aspect, keeping our drones connected with the command and control system, we have communication redundancy and will build an electronic fence when we are performing a show. As for the software safety, our built-in safety mechanism will keep the drones from falling; we also call it fail-safe.

Raffaello D’Andrea, founder and CEO of Verity Studios explored the design and assembly process of drone systems. 

TK: Lots of companies sell commercial-grade drones, such as DJI. But how much custom hardware and software work did you still have to do to create a platform capable of producing drone shows? For example, did you have to write code to create your own software that maps an image/video to the drones? Feel free to go into as much technical detail as you like because readers are really interested in the production aspects. For instance, they also might be interested in how much automation is possible, such as how many drones each pilot can fly.

RA: We currently offer almost total vertical integration. We design and assemble the drones and the system ourselves, we provide creative services like choreography and costume design, and we go on site to install the system.

But once it’s on site, our indoor drone show system can be completely client-operated.

To get into more detail, each autonomous Lucie® micro drone is equipped with a high-intensity, pre-programmable RGBW light and its flight time is up to 3 minutes. The indoor positioning system is the enabling technology for our drone light shows.

It consists of Kedge™ localisation units that are placed around the space in GPS-denied environments. These units essentially act as satellites, creating an indoor GPS.

This enables the Lucie micro drones to locate themselves in space, so they can perform their pre-programmed choreographies autonomously without cameras, carpets or other limitations.

This automation enables a single operator to fly an unlimited number of drones. With over 100,000 flights logged, we can also use our significant dataset to continuously improve our system and optimise it for live events.

TK: How do you ensure safety of fans/attendees/patrons, as well as performers/players/musicians? For example, with an indoor concert, how do you make sure that the drones don’t fly into a loudspeaker line array, or cables, or roof trusses? I imagine that this becomes even more challenging if the drone show is part of a concert tour, where you’re having to fly inside a different arena each night.

RA: At Verity, ensuring our autonomous drones perform reliably night after night is a key priority for us, as is safety.

As a result, we have developed some extremely powerful, and cost-effective, drone failsafe technologies. It all began in 2016 when we worked with Cirque du Soleil to bring drones to Broadway in the musical Paramour.

Our Stage Flyer drones performed in front of large audiences and above actors for over 390 performances.  Having our client operate these large, 1kg drones above people’s heads, live on Broadway eight times a week was only possible because we had engineered the complete drone show system around safety and reliability, from the ground up.

We developed drone fail-safe technologies to ensure the safety and reliability of our drones in public performances. And this approach did not stop at the technology but extended to all aspects of the system – from our internal procedures and processes to the training of the show’s automation operator and the theatre stage hands who operated the drones, day in and day out. 

It’s really that bottom-up approach that allowed us to sleep soundly at night knowing that these “dancing lampshades” were flying over people in front of a 2,000-strong audience, night after night, without safety nets.  

In their one-year run, the drones performed more than 7,000 autonomous flights, without a single safety incident. 

Our Lucie micro drones on the other hand are much smaller and a lot lighter than our Stage Flyer drones. The Lucies only weigh 50g.

This means they are safe to fly above people, and we’ve had approval to fly in very restricted venues, like airports.

The Lucie micro drones also have a guard around them, protecting the drone and its propellers. This, along with the small size of the drones, makes them very safe. Once people see the size and weight of our Lucie drones, they can see that they are unlikely to pose a safety concern and we are allowed to fly in venues close to and above people without nets.

TK: Are there big differences in commercial drone regulations from country to country in EMEA and APAC? For example, in the US, operators need a license for commercial application such as shows, and they also must be able to see their drone at all times.  

RA: This is changing rapidly, but currently we’re in a situation where drone technology has outpaced regulation in many parts of the world.

This means it often comes down to the discretion of the venue and the fire marshal to decide whether to allow our drones to fly and our operators are not required to have special licenses.

What helps is that, at 50g, our Lucie micro drones are very light. This means they are safe to fly above people, and we’ve had approval to fly in very restricted venues, like airports.

TK: What are some shows that you’re particularly proud of? And why? For example, what made them challenging to produce?

RA: That’s a tough one to answer, simply because of the breadth of the events we have produced so far – airports, cruise-ships, concerts, sports arenas, and so on. 
Having said that, I think that coming out of stealth mode at TED in 2016 was probably my favorite event. 

Hearing thousands of people gasp when our micro-drones started to fly over the audience, knowing that we were making history doing something that had never been done before, and the standing ovation at the end of the performance, is an experience that I will treasure for the rest of my life.