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“Impressive”, “Exquisite”, “Extraordinary”, “Astounding”, “Moved me to tears”.
These are all comments that repeatedly emerged in response to a viral Facebook video showcasing a drone light show that Verge Aero conducted as a gesture of gratitude towards healthcare and essential workers in Philadelphia. The overwhelming response illustrates that when executed with precision, drone light shows offer a captivating and impactful experience. Since then, we have received numerous inquiries about our technology, and we aim to share our insights with a broader audience.
Understanding Drone Light Shows in Detail
Drone light shows involve groups of illuminated, synchronized, and choreographed drones that form various aerial formations. Using computer programs, graphics are transformed into flight commands and communicated to the drones, enabling the creation of almost any image in the sky.
Over the years, drone shows have evolved from being confined to university laboratories to being showcased on prominent global events. Our inspiration can be traced back to a 2012 TED video featuring Vijay Kumar, the Dean of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, demonstrating drone fleets performing breathtaking maneuvers. Pioneering work in Europe has been carried out by the Spaxels Research Initiative, Collmot, and Verity. Intel, in particular, has played a significant role in popularizing the concept, by organizing drone shows during major events like the Super Bowl halftime show and the Winter Olympics.
The Mechanics Behind Drone Shows
Before we proceed, let’s clarify one thing: drone light shows are not powered by Skynet, the artificial intelligence network depicted in The Terminator! The drones used in shows lack self-awareness and the ability to make real-time decisions. Instead, they obediently follow specific commands and cannot deviate.
The process of creating a show is relatively straightforward. Firstly, the design team develops a storyboard timeline that outlines the desired images and effects. These visuals are then animated using specialized software, which translates them into synchronized flight paths for each drone. Additionally, a soundtrack is often created to enhance the overall experience. Once the complete show is ready, it is sent to the drones via radio signals from a ground control station, which is operated by a skilled pilot. Only when the pilot ensures the safety and readiness of all elements, the show begins, and the drones take off to bring the storyboard to life in the sky.
Creating a system that can be safely and reliably flown requires significant engineering efforts. Verge Aero’s engineers have designed custom drones and software specifically tailored for these shows. Our custom drones, devoid of features like cameras, boast unique attributes such as a blindingly bright LED light source.
With Verge Aero’s design software, users can select graphics and special effects to be placed in a timeline, similar to video editing software. The software calculates the flight paths of each drone, ensuring they do not collide in mid-air. It generates a comprehensive 3D rendering of the show, guaranteeing its visual fidelity. Each drone is sent a distinct program, and the ground control station continuously monitors their status through a local, encrypted network, prioritizing safety at all times.
The flight crew utilizes a detailed dashboard display on the ground station to prepare drones for flight and continuously monitor their status. To ensure uninterrupted communication, the drones are equipped with multiple radios operating on frequencies separate from busy WiFi channels, allowing for clear communication in busy and noisy radio environments.
Shows are flown by certified pilots who possess extensive knowledge in aviation regulations and weather conditions. Prior to every show, checklists are meticulously followed, ensuring the drones are fully operational, batteries are charged, and the flight area is clear. Once all checks are complete, the pilot presses the “GO” button, and the drones take off to fulfill their mission.
Will Drones Replace Fireworks?
Fireworks displays have faced increasing criticism due to their negative environmental impact, including noise pollution, air pollution, and wastefulness. Concerns have also been raised about their potential effects on wildlife populations and individuals suffering from PTSD, particularly military veterans. Consequently, fireworks displays have been banned in many locations due to the elevated risk of wildfires.
Given these factors, many people have started considering alternatives to fireworks, and drone light shows are ideally positioned to fill this void.
Drone shows have already proven to be a fantastic complement to fireworks displays. However, drone shows offer much more than just that. Drones possess a broader range of effects and can execute sophisticated choreography, thus offering greater storytelling opportunities in the sky. Drones can also be deployed in restricted environments where fireworks would otherwise be prohibited.
Upon closer examination, fireworks displays tend to revolve around a limited repertoire of effects, repetitively combining various combinations of size, color, and intensity. Why settle for such limitations when we can leverage drones to generate dynamic, repositionable 3D pixels capable of creating virtually limitless imagery? Drones offer far more creative possibilities than traditional fireworks. It is highly likely that as drone shows become increasingly common, people will eventually view fireworks displays as mundane in comparison.
Naturally, the transition from fireworks to drones will occur gradually. Fireworks displays will continue to exist for some time, primarily due to their cost-effectiveness. However, as drone shows become more affordable, we can expect their usage to surge.
Why Haven’t Drone Shows Become More Prevalent?
Considering the widespread availability of drones, it is surprising that drone light shows have not become more commonplace. The reason behind this lies in the fact that successful execution of drone shows requires a range of technologies that have only recently matured. Like any innovation, it takes time for its benefits to be widely embraced. Several factors have hindered the adoption of drone shows thus far:
- High costs
- Regulatory approval processes
- Limited and expensive insurance options
- Labor-intensive operations
- Lack of efficient show design tools
- Strict safety requirements
Specialized drones equipped with high-precision avionics contribute to the overall high cost. Additionally, labor-intensive operations are required, ranging from managing rudimentary control software to preparing drones for flight.
While these operating expenses may be manageable for events like the Super Bowl or the Olympics, they are simply not viable for most occasions. However, the landscape is changing, and Verge Aero’s innovations are making drone light shows more accessible to a wider range of budgets.
How Much Do Drone Light Shows Cost?
Like many emerging technologies, drone light shows were initially expensive and remain relatively costly. However, as is often the case with technologies, prices are gradually decreasing over time. As the technology matures, drone light shows will eventually become mainstream. The tools developed by Verge Aero allow us to deliver more for less.
The cost of a drone light show primarily depends on the number of drones being used. Organizing a show with 500 drones naturally costs more than a show with only 50 drones. In addition to the drones themselves, expenses related to labor, freight, logistics, and other logistical elements contribute to the overall cost.
A smaller show, which is easier to set up, can cost as little as $20,000. On the other hand, larger and more complex shows can easily exceed this figure. The following factors influence the price of a drone light show:
- Quantity of drones
- Complexity of show design
- Coordination and rehearsal time
- Airspace authorization and regulatory compliance
- Shipping and logistics
- Crew travel and accommodation
What Sets Verge Aero Apart?
To make drone light shows more affordable, Verge Aero has introduced several innovations that streamline the process and reduce the workload required.
Simplified Show Design
Traditionally, drone light shows were manually created using various applications, including animation software like Blender. This was an extremely labor-intensive and limiting process. Moreover, programmers had to ensure that vertices in Blender never overlapped during animation to prevent drone collisions in the air. The output from these applications further required preparation before it could be used for flight. This process was highly prone to human error and posed significant safety risks.
A superior approach is to employ a unified software application with a user-friendly interface, such as Verge Aero Design Studio. This software automatically handles anti-collision calculations and enables designers to create cues using built-in animation tools. Once the design process is complete, the software eliminates the possibility of human error by resolving flight path conflicts, identifying potential issues or mistakes, and simulating the performance without human intervention.
Designers can now generate content with just a few clicks, saving them from the arduous tasks associated with animation tools or coding. The Verge Aero Design Studio also includes an effects generator that produces complex flocking effects, as seen in the music video “All of Us” by PNAU. Designers can easily share effects they create with one another, promoting collaboration and freedom from unnecessary drudgery.
Simplified Show Operations
Show setup used to be cumbersome, with each drone requiring individual loading of flight paths and placement in the correct starting locations. These processes were time-consuming and prone to human error. Streamlined operations employ the following principles:
- Each drone carries a complete copy of the show, allowing flexible placement in any takeoff slot.
- Drones indicate suitable locations during placement in the grid.
- Ground station software automatically checks drone flight readiness and placement.
- Swapping out any drone that is not ready for flight is quick and straightforward.
These operational improvements result in a seamless experience, eliminating tedium. Pilots can then focus on critical aspects like drone airworthiness and airspace safety.
All drones must synchronize their maintenance schedules and perform software updates via the Verge Aero global database. Maintenance procedures, such as motor and battery replacements, are straightforward, and software updates can be performed wirelessly. Operators can efficiently manage their entire drone fleet with minimal effort.
Together, these innovations significantly reduce the time and manpower required for setting up a drone performance. For example, two Verge Aero team members can set up and fly 100 drones within 45 minutes. This efficiency helps keep costs down, accelerates technology adoption, and allows more people to witness these captivating shows.
How Many Drones Are Needed for a Show?
Contrary to popular belief, a large number of drones is not always necessary to create a remarkable show. While Guinness World Records have been set with ever-larger numbers of drones, such as Intel’s record of 2,066 simultaneous airborne drones, compelling content can be produced with fewer drones.
Early drone shows often relied on large numbers of drones due to their limited brightness and imprecise positioning capabilities. Content was designed to fill a volume of space with drones for illumination purposes, requiring numerous drones. Instead of drawing straight lines with individual drones, rectangles were formed and filled with drones. Intel’s Time Magazine cover is a prime example of this approach.
In contrast, Verge Aero drones are much brighter and maintain precise positions by combining GPS with additional positional data from the ground station. This allows for more creative flexibility, enabling the achievement of similar effects with fewer drones. We can now precisely draw lines in three-dimensional space using drones.
Of course, the number of drones required depends on the desired outcome. Complex logos, for instance, will necessitate more drones to accurately depict them in the air. The intricacy of shapes, audience size, and viewing distance are also factors that influence the required number of drones to have the desired visual impact.
It is worth noting that a small event can be successfully executed with as little as 50 drones. Remarkable shows have been created with fleets of this size. As with any artistic endeavor, the key lies in how the tools are utilized.
Ensuring Safety at Drone Shows
When executed by professional teams, drone shows are extremely safe, as demonstrated by Intel’s flawless safety record over the past four years. However, not all operators maintain the same high standards. At Verge Aero, safety remains our top priority. We have implemented various safety measures, including:
A safe distance must be maintained between the drones and the audience. Geofences, or multiple barriers, are integrated into shows to prevent drones from straying outside the designated flight zones.
Using fully integrated hardware optimized for drone shows ensures optimal performance and safety. Every drone component is carefully designed and built to the highest standards. Utilizing inexpensive third-party drones will never yield comparable results.
Multiple radios operating on different frequency bands ensure uninterrupted communication during flights. Additionally, the autopilot software runs on a separate processor from the mission control software. In the event of a failure, the drone will still safely return home.
Flight Path Safety
Our unified software application guarantees that the flight paths of the drones never intersect, minimizing the risk of collisions. This eliminates the potential introduction of software bugs during the handoff from one application to another.
Adherence to Processes
Compliance with regulatory requirements, the use of experienced pilots, adherence to checklists, and fostering a culture of safety all contribute to the successful and safe execution of drone shows.
The Future of Drone Light Shows
Early drone shows primarily consisted of transitioning simplistic graphics, similar to how marching bands change formations on a field. However, advancements in design tools and control technology have opened up new possibilities. As innovative show designs continue to push boundaries, drone shows will become even more awe-inspiring. Drones themselves will evolve with the addition of different lighting elements and effects, further contributing to the creation of stunning shows.
We are still in the early stages of this exciting medium of live entertainment. Stay tuned! It promises to be an extraordinary journey.
This article was written by Nils Thorjussen and Tony Samaritano of Verge Aero.