Although they are still a relatively new phenomenon in the lineage of live events, drone shows have appeared on their fair share of live productions over the years, including a few that have featured in our pages. In fact, way back in 2016, my first ever TPi cover story was Muse’s Drones tour, which saw giant spheres flown around an arena by micro drones flying over the crowd. In the years since, companies such as Verity made a major impact on the market, collaborating with bands including Metallica, where a swarm of drones flew around the band.
As impressive as these two examples were, they are still a far cry from the large-scale drone shows that we’ve seen at events including Coachella, the Coronation Concert and the Eurovision Song Contest in recent months. These spectacular aerial displays utilise 3D software in tandem with drones fitted with programmable LEDs, turning the open sky into a blank canvas for a multitude of dynamic patterns and images. When it comes to creativity with this new technology, the sky is literally the limit.
At TPi HQ, much of the development of drone technology has been covered extensively in TPiMEA, with the Middle East being one of the forerunners in adding this element within large-scale shows. However, with numerous companies in Europe, UK and America investing heavily in the technology, it seems like only a matter of time until drones become an ever-present part of large-scale productions all over the world.
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
Those specialising in the world of drones often draw parallels between the emergence of drones and the introduction of the moving light. “When Vari-Lite brought out the first moving head, it came out onto a show as a whole package and was more of a special effect than part of the lighting rig,” explained Marco Niedermeier of AO Multimedia & Drones – a company that has made tremendous strides within the Middle East market when it comes to drone shows after getting its start as supplier of large searchlights including the enormous FALCON fixture.
The Vari-Lite comparison is interesting as drone technology seems to be following a similar trajectory, with drone shows requiring a specialist team on-site and during the creative design process.
“There are certain companies working within the drone space that are effectively manufacturers providing productions with equipment. However, I believe to see real progression within the sector, we need to collaborate closely with the events industry,” mused Niedermeier, explaining why AO also has a side of its business that focusses solely on the design element of the show.
Niedermeier is not the only one in this space that sees the potential in the drone market. Enter Nils Thorjussen, CEO of Verge Aero. Based out of Austin, Texas, Thorjussen is one of the originators of the Wholehog lighting console – which aimed to give lighting designers the power to efficiently control a full lighting rig – a mentality he is now bringing into the drone world.
“The goal of the Wholehog with its effects engine was that you could press a button and quickly programme moving lights to create effects that previously might have taken hours,” he recalled. “It’s a similar problem with drones. With Verge Aero, our aim with the integrated hardware and software package is to streamline the user experience so designers can focus on bring creative and have the software handle everything else for them.”
Thorjussen said that one of the early roadblocks they had faced as a company was designers seeing the drone as a one-off gag rather than something that could elevate an entire performance. “It’s a frustrating opinion,” he admitted. “It’s almost like getting a moving light, using it for one show then deciding you’ll go back to par cans. However, that perception is starting to change, and drones are without a doubt here to stay.”
INDOOR VERSUS OUTDOOR
It’s important to note that there is a real division between indoor and outdoor drone shows. “You have to see them as two different industries as they are two very different types of technology,” explained Thorjussen.
“For an indoor show, you have several different safety considerations as you are flying so close to people and there is no GPS under a roof, so an alternative positioning system must be used. Outdoor shows, meanwhile, bring regulatory concerns such as the FAA in America, which controls airspace.”
There is no way of talking about drones without touching upon how regulations affect those working in the field. “There were certainly fewer regulations in the Middle East compared to other regions,” admitted Niedermeier, while explaining why the region, along with China, became a hotbed for development in drone shows. “There has been a lot of education in multiple territories when it came to drone legislation. For example, when we first started speaking to the authorities in Dubai, we had to explain that when it came to a 100-drone show, each craft wasn’t flown manually by a pilot.”
The European law covering drone shows is only just coming into effect, but amusingly within the legislation there is a remit that anyone piloting a drone show must prove they are able to fly an individual drone.
“In Europe, drone swarm pilots fall under an A2 licence, compared to an A1 drone licence, which is really for hobbyists,” stated Niedermeier, while talking about the latest European regulations. “There still isn’t specific legislation around drone pilots, so those who operate shows still must prove they can fly an individual drone. It might not seem like a big deal, but it’s time consuming.”
One of the bigger issues facing companies is the lack of consistency between regions. “All the regulators are tricky in their own way and there is no real uniformity,” stated Tony Martin of UK-based drone art company, Celestial.
These regulations may present headaches for those working in the field but according to Chris Crockford from UK-based Electric Airshows, they are a necessity.
Crockford, a well-known figure in the event production industry having been the lighting designer for the acts including The Lighting Seeds, said there have been two third-party known drone light show crashes in the UK so far. “I’d estimate that there have been fewer than 100 drone light shows in the UK to date and two of them have involved crashes,” he said. “It’s not a good record. Each drone is an aircraft and needs to be treated accordingly. We certainly need to move away from control systems built on crowd-sourced freeware.”
He expressed that these tightening legislations will hopefully mean fewer people working in the field that could put people at risk. “The possibility of less conscientious operators flying ‘under the radar’ is a genuine concern. It may happen on smaller, private events with fewer drones, rather than larger events with a more robust paper-trail. In such cases, the biggest risk would be to public safety. People with say, 20 drones, could watch YouTube and fly shows without the experience or thought needed. The key thing is the in-flight separation; if that fails and drones collide, you have a shower of electronics, parts, and lithium-ion batteries. The closer the show to people, the higher the likelihood of harm.”
Crockford highlighted some potential red flags on the horizon. “People have already invested considerable sums in drones,” he observed. “This technology will soon degrade, and be replaced by newer, smaller, faster technology. People will fly older drones which will, eventually, fail in flight. You must look at the drone industry in general to see how quickly technology is being miniaturised and how quickly this year’s new technology becomes last year’s old news.” One thing to consider, according to Crockford, is how drones will perform over a run of shows.
“At Electric Airshows, we have been working with our manufacturing partner to ensure the longevity of the system, so that you’re not having to swap out units on the second or third show of a 20-night run. Most drone light shows have been run as one-off events to date and performance and longevity of the system as a whole is an area we have been focussing on.”
While drone technology has certainly come along way, most companies TPi spoke to seemed to suggest that we are still in the very early stages of where the technology needs to be. “There are a lot of products currently in the marketplace that are not too far off the ‘hobby’ market,” stated Martin.
“Right now, I’d compare the technology to a Game Boy when we need to get to the PS5. That said, we’re doing an impressive and fascinating thing within the limitations and we’re looking to keep pushing and innovating.”
John ‘JP’ Partridge, Production Designer at Celestial, continued by making the point that although there was room for improvement, much of the wider industry underestimate what can be achieved with the technology.
“Many clients still have this misconception that a drone show is limited to eight minutes, but this isn’t true,” he commented. “Not only is the battery life of drones getting longer and our technology flying more efficiently, we now have capability for multiple swarms that can seamlessly take over from one another and options of charging a swarm during a show. This would move drone swarms from a single gag effect into a preeminent tool for a performance.”
WHO SHOULD WORK WITH DRONES
It’s not only new technology that is needed in the field but people, too. Despite only trading for two-and-a-half years, Celestial has gone from a team of five to 50. You’d be forgiven for thinking that when recruiting new team members, Celestial would be looking for those with a background in flying drones, but in fact there is a far more important skill they look for.
“You need people with live events expertise,” stated JP. “Working on a drone show is more akin to being a lighting operator or production technician. It’s all about fault finding, problem solving, and everything is networked and run on Wi-Fi. A background in live events also helps people understand that the show needs to happen precisely on time and accurately sync with the wider production.” In fact, Martin and JP come from the live events world. The former, a lighting and show designer back in the day, while JP went from being a full time production tech at PRG to an established touring lighting designer. The duo cited their events experiences as a key driver for their success.
“We did the performance for the Eurovision Song Contest – one of the biggest drone shows ever to happen in the UK,” stated Martin. “Others didn’t see the any option to place the drone take off grid and ruled the show “not flyable”. Whereas we successfully devised a solution for taking off from a nearby urban location, utilising a comprehensive staging system to navigate around any potential obstacles. Our background in live events and in house knowledge of temporary structures meant we saw a solution that others didn’t.”
While all the experts TPi spoke to come from corners of the globe, one statement that all repeated was that ‘drones are definitely here to stay,’ and with the number of large-scale performances that seem to be looking at them as an addition to their shows, you can see why they are confident in this opinion.
This article originally appeared in issue #276 of TPi, which you can read here.