The steep learning curve for drone light shows

Drone light shows bring a wow factor to events that few other technologies can match. But as Tim Kridel found, producing them comes with a steep learning curve.

Attend a major concert, sporting event or product launch these days, and there’s a good chance it will include a drone light show.

That’s impressive, considering that only a few dozen companies worldwide have the combination of hardware, software and skills necessary to pull off professional-grade productions like the ones at the most recent Super Bowl and Olympic Winter Games. 

The demand highlights a potential business opportunity for AV firms looking for new markets.

The January-February 2015 Inavate explored opportunities such as drone-mounted video surveillance. Since then, drone light shows have quickly emerged as a hot application—one that has a lot of overlap with traditional AV markets such as rental and staging. 

As the name implies, drone light shows consist of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) equipped with LEDs that are flown in formation to create still and moving images.

On Drake’s current tour, for example, 200 drones formed a rotating cross on one song. And at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 Opening Ceremony, 1,218 drones created giant Olympic rings above the stadium.  

The latter also is an example of how quickly fleet sizes keep growing. In 2015, the Guinness World Records title was a mere 100 drones. Last summer it was 2,018. 

How much bigger can they get? The amount affects the addressable market for drone shows.

For example, today’s shows typically span an arena or stadium. But bigger fleets could blanket, say, an enormous outdoor area, such as the Rock am Ring music festival, or a virtual fireworks display over the 140 hectare Hyde Park in London. 

“Technically we have the capacity of 5,000, 10,000 or even more because we have an intelligence command and control system to range all of our drones,” says Zhiyuan Li, vice president of EHang Egret, whose productions included a 1,374-drone show at the City Wall of Xi’an in China. “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.” 


Do it yourself 

Between navigating regulatory requirements, applying traditional animation skills to brand-new technologies and often building software from scratch, getting into the drone light show business requires climbing a steep learning curve.  

“It’s such a new world,” says Kyle Dorosz, founder and CEO of Firefly Drone Shows, one of only three companies with US Federal Aviation Administration authorisation to produce shows in the country. “You can’t buy a drone light show solution off the shelf. So you could talk to four different light show companies, and they’re going to do it four different ways.  

“We’ve developed our own process. We build our own drones. We use some of our own software. It’s a very closed solution: We’ve built it for our purpose.”  

France-based Dronisos also built its own solution, which it’s used for 10,000 shows over the past two years. 

“We are using consumer drones from Parrot,” says Philippe Duvivier, business developer. “We are then tuning their hardware [by] adding LEDs and other control interfaces, and their software, in order to turn them into an autonomous swarm.  

“We have also developed the choreography design software and the flight control system. Only one operator is then required for operating a flight. He focuses on monitoring and safety, while the drones fly autonomously.”  

A software ecosystem is slowly forming to complement the maturity on the hardware side, where other drone manufacturers include DJI, Ehang and Intel.

One example is SPH Engineering’s Drone Show Software, which can work with existing animation software or serve as the animation tool, too.  

“As a base, we chose Blender software, which is open source and free,” says Janis Kuze, sales director of Latvia-based SPH. “But it can be anything as long as the animator knows how to transfer that animation to Blender form correctly and not lose all of the metadata.” 

Whether it’s Drone Show Software or a solution that a production company develops in house, the basic concept is the same: Using storyboards and other input from the client, animators create a 3D show on a computer, preview it and then upload it to the fleet for testing and finally production.  

“You can design the show exactly how you’ll see it down to the timing, the lights, the brightness of the lights and the colour of the lights,” Dorosz says. “We can sync it with music, other lighting effects, fireworks and anything like that. It’s a very manual process of animating on a computer beforehand and then converting that into ‘drone data.’” 

Another manual process is testing the show and then tweaking the animation. That’s because a show that looks great on the computer doesn’t always look great in the sky, too. 

“Some of our customers are trying augmented or virtual reality (AR/VR) to check how it will look from a certain angle in the exact place where they’re planning the show,” Kuze says. 

Because drone light shows are still so new, clients often need help understanding all the possibilities.

Other clients come in with concrete ideas, and it’s up to the company to turn those into animations. And still others want a turnkey production that their staff can take over.    

“We currently offer almost total vertical integration,” says Raffaello D’Andrea, founder and CEO of Verity, whose current productions include the Drake and Metallica tours.

“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.” 

A few skilled people and a few thousand drones 

Finding the right people is another challenge. For example, although animation skills from other applications provide a solid foundation, drone production has a lot of unique nuances.  

“Even if you took the best animator in the world and told them to do a drone light show, there’s a whole set of parameters because now the animation has to work with the physical, 3D world,” Dorosz says. “There’s a lot of physics that an animator didn’t have to worry about before that now they do.”  

This learning curve often frustrates animators who are new to drones.  

“After they see this 10-15 page manual of assumptions and restrictions they have to follow, they say, ‘I’d rather go make jumping animations for some advertisements,’” Kuze says.  

Besides staff or freelance animators, a production company also needs at least one person who knows drone hardware and software, including the ability to configure them on a firmware level.

This engineer also will need a few skilled people as support staff. Then there’s the upfront and ongoing costs of owning a fleet of thousands of drones. The bottom line: Breaking into the drone show market and then turning a profit isn’t cheap, quick or easy. 

“If you want to make something really great, it takes quite a lot of time and effort,” Kuze says. “A custom show takes about three to six months from idea to setting everything up. 

But software also enables the automation that reduces the number of pilots. 

“With the help of globally leading UAV swarm control system, EHang enables one person to control over 1,000 UAVs using one computer,” Zhiyuan says. 

The more shows a company produces, the more experiences it has to help identify new efficiencies.  

“With over 100,000 flights logged, we can also use our significant dataset to continuously improve our system and optimize it for live events,” D’Andrea says.  

Safety first 

The animation-design process also must account for obstructions, such as light towers in a stadium, or line arrays and roof trusses in an arena. Those dictate the amount of space available for the show. 

Outdoors, wind is a wild card. One way to compensate is to use bigger, more powerful drones because they’re less likely to get blown around. Another is to adjust the spacing between drones to limit the possibility that they’ll crash into each other. That’s also an example of how drone spacing is like a display’s pixel count when it comes to image resolution.  

“The distance between each drone is 1.5 m to 3 m,” Zhiyuan says. 

Geofencing corrals the drones into a safe space, away from spectators, players, musicians and other people, as well as physical obstructions.  

“We implement a geofence that will force the drones to land immediately if they get out of the fence,” says Dronisos’ Duvivier. 

Drones also can be designed with features to protect people if those safeguards aren’t enough. For example, some of Verity’s are Lucie micro drones, which weigh only 50 grams and have a guard around their propellers.   

“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,” D’Andrea says. 

Expect the unexpected 

The big differences between outdoor and indoor productions are why some companies specialise in one or the other. For example, Firefly focuses on outdoor shows and has a referral agreement with Verity to handle indoor shows.  

Outside, drones rely on satellite location technologies such as GPS. Those signals are too weak inside arenas, so companies specialising in indoor shows must develop alternative positioning systems.  

“[Our] indoor positioning system consists of Kedge localisation units that are placed around the space in GPS-denied environments,” D’Andrea says. “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.” 

Drones also need a reliable wireless connection to their piloting platform. So part of the production process includes surveying the RF environment to identify which frequencies are available and what might cause interference.  

“Verity and the indoor shows definitely have to deal with it more because they’re in such close proximity to all that,” Dorosz says. “We’re kind of set up like a fireworks show: We’re pretty far away from everything for safety reasons.

"That separation helps with the interference issue, as well. Even working at music festivals and very urban environments, fortunately we have haven’t had an issue.”  

Both indoors and out, the spectators also can create challenges—and even scuttle a show altogether.  

“In some countries, a big boss or politician comes, and his security detail is jamming whatever frequency there is,” Kuze says. “If they’re not blocking GPS, then there’s the option just to press the button and hope for the best. But if they’re jamming GPS, then it’s a no-go. There have been cases where shows have been cancelled. 

“We first heard about this from fireworks guys who were working in St. Petersburg. The president of Russia came in, and all the Wi-Fi frequencies went down. Luckily they had a wired connection to their fireworks, as well. So there are a lot of interesting things to consider.”  


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