How Drone Light Shows Work (Explained for Beginners)

If you followed the Olympics, you must have observed the drone show. While the various sports involved in the Olympics are the main attraction, the drone light show undoubtedly created a memorable experience that everyone is still talking about and wondering how it works months after the Olympics. So, how do drone light shows work?

Drone light shows involve hundreds or thousands of drones designed to communicate and execute choreographed patterns. The choreography is created using 3D animation tools. Then software like Drone Show assigns a flight path to each drone as part of the pattern. As such, you only need one flight operator to conduct the show.

Keep reading to learn more about how drone light shows work and what it takes to create such a show.

What is a drone light show?

Drone light shows are made with drones featuring LED lights programmed to perform stunts and form patterns in the sky. Some of them can also carry smoke ejectors.

These drones can form any pattern as long as it’s preprogrammed using the relevant software. The thought of having hundreds or thousands of pilots controlling each drone is hectic and would be impossible.  But programming, AI, and 3D modeling ensure smooth coordination and only requires 1 or 2 drone pilots.

The idea of flying coordinated drones was first introduced in 2012 in a TED Talk by Vijay Kumar, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

He displayed how small agile drones can be teamed up and used to perform stunts, in construction, and even in search and rescue. But companies like Intel and Verge Aero helped popularize this technology in the entertainment world.

How do drone light shows work?

When watching a drone light show, it seems pretty straightforward. But a lot goes into executing a drone light show. And the more drones there are, the more complicated it will be. Let’s get into exactly how drone light show technology works.

Building the drone

We are all very familiar with consumer drones and professional drones. These are drones used for photography, inspections, survey, agricultural applications, and some are even used for delivery.

But these aren’t the drones used in light shows. As a matter of fact, some of the drones in light shows lack cameras. Instead, they only have large LED lights, GPS, a few sensors, and batteries.

They are built to be as light as possible, enabling them to last a long time in flight and agile enough to perform the various maneuvers required. For instance, the Intel drones weigh less than a pound and are mainly built of plastic and foam.

Flight planning

This is the most crucial part of the process. It’s where programmers design the various movements the drones will pull off, and it can take weeks or even months to complete. To achieve this, they use 3D animation software like Blender to design the choreography.

Since this technology is relatively new, there are no best practices or bad practices. All you need to do is tell a story with the drones like you would with pixel art.

But with drone light shows, you need to consider that the choreography must be viewable from all directions. If you’re into animation, this is another way that you can bring your imagination into reality.

Testing

Once you’ve completed the choreography, it’s time to test it. This is to make sure the drones take off and execute the whole choreography without colliding and ensure the drones can achieve the required distance between each other and the needed speed to complete the choreography.

And no, you don’t need to launch the drones to test them. That would lead to crashes and make the whole process quite expensive. Instead, you can use software like DroneShow to conduct the test and make the necessary adjustments. This software simulates the drone’s size and speed, enhancing the accuracy of the test.

Finding a suitable site

Once you’ve tested the drones, it’s time to find the best place to deploy them. This is a place where they won’t crash into other objects and a place where they are easily viewable by the audience. A flat ground works best. Some of the devices needed to launch a drone show include a GPS ground station, a WiFi router, and a controlling laptop.

Pre-flight check

Before deploying the drones, you need to make sure all drones are working as expected, make sure the batteries are fully charged, and ensure the weather is suitable for flying the drones. You also need to check if you’re authorized to fly in the airspace.

Deploying the drones

Once you find the best place for your drone show, the DroneShow software or any other software will assign the flight paths to each drone. That’s how you can be sure not to find two drones in one position. Better yet, DroneShow even has safety features to make the whole process effective and safe. For starters, it has a Geo-Fence that keeps the drones within a defined perimeter.

If one drone happens to lose power and comes crashing to the ground, it will fall within this perimeter and not on the spectators. Secondly, there’s an interface that allows you to land one individual drone or all the drones in case of any issues.

And lastly, there’s one drone pilot who can take control of the drones if the laptop or launching system fails. But if there are no issues, the drones will fly, execute the choreography, and land on their own.

Will drones replace fireworks?

Yes, it’s conceivable that drone light shows could replace fireworks shows. Drones have replaced other technologies in other sectors before now. For instance, drones replaced helicopters in filming, they replaced airplanes in aerial photography and surveillance, and they’ve even replaced delivery vehicles in some industries.

As a result, we can expect that they may replace fireworks too. Below are some reasons why drones may be better than fireworks.

They’re reusable

While fireworks create some of the best patterns in the skies and form the main part of New Year’s Eve and other celebrations, they come at a great cost since you can’t reuse them. On the other hand, once the drones complete the show, they’ll land, and you can use them to display the same show or program a different pattern. Unless they crash, which rarely happens, you can expect to use the same drones over and over again for some time.

Drones are quiet(er)

Fireworks are known to emit an explosive sound that doesn’t sit well with pets or people who live close by and would prefer sleeping rather than listening to the fireworks. And let’s not forget that explosive noises may be bad for veterans or people with PTSD from explosive noises.

But the only noise a drone emits is from the propellers. Also, the drones are often flying at 150 feet above the ground and in a designated perimeter. It’s easy to sleep through a drone light show. If you hate fireworks, I think drone light shows will make you change your mind.

They’re customizable

There isn’t much you can do in terms of variety with fireworks. Sure, you can make them print out some names and some patterns, but drones are a gamechanger. We’ve seen space stations, rovers, deer, Star Wars animations, globes, baseballs, logos, and many other patterns printed in the skies.

As mentioned earlier, anything you can create using 3D software can be executed in a drone light show.

Drones are safer

Fireworks are quite risky. There have been cases where they explode too close to residential areas, causing fires. For instance, in 2018, fireworks caused 500 vehicle fires (link), 1900 structure fires, 17,100 outside fires, 46 injuries, and more than $100 million in damage.

That makes you wonder if fireworks are even worth it if they can cause this much damage. With this in mind, people have been trying to look for safer methods to celebrate, and drones have become a viable option. But how safe are they?

Are Drones Safe?

Drones are safer than fireworks, but they also have some potential risks. In China, for instance, there have been a couple of drone accidents. In one accident above a shopping mall, 200 drones that were part of the light show failed and came plunging down. Luckily, as already mentioned, these drones were light, and with propeller guards in place, they didn’t cause much damage (link).

And in a second accident, 17 of them failed (link), though this was a result of jamming. In this accident, there was some damage amounting to about $20,000. The main issue in these accidents was jamming by malicious people.

But as I mentioned earlier, you can deploy the drones and have spectators watch from a distance. Secondly, drone manufacturers can protect their drones from hacking. Either way, it’s easier to mitigate accidents of a drone light show than it is for a fireworks show.

Drones are environmentally friendly

Another risk associated with fireworks is they pose a danger to the environment. Besides noise pollution, fireworks contain pollutants. For instance, they are made of sodium, lithium, Barium, calcium, and strontium.

During the explosion, these elements combust due to exposure to oxygen, releasing gases such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide, which contribute to global warming.

Secondly, even after combustion, some of the residue ends up in the environment, and it’s toxic to people, animals, and plants. Some of the particles also end up in the air, and they could cause respiratory issues. Not forgetting they could also lead to acid rain, which causes even more adverse effects.

Drones, on the other hand, are “clean”. For starters, they use batteries. As a result, they don’t emit any pollutants such as you’ll find in vehicles or fireworks. Drones may produce a small amount of carbon dioxide, based on how they operate, but not as much as fireworks.

Drone light shows are cheaper

In most cases, running a drone light show is cheaper than a fireworks show. You can find small drones and build a small drone light show yourself. Better yet, there are companies with ready-made drones offering such services.

Fireworks can be pretty costly, considering the setup costs and the risks involved. And the best thing about drone light shows is they’re accommodating; more people will be happy, there’s less noise, and you can’t really put a price on putting a smile on more faces.

How much does a drone light show cost?

Drones shows can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $300,000 depending on the number of drones used and the complexity of the show. Below is an example of Intel’s pricing (link) as stated on their website.

Price Number of Drones Pattern
$99,000 200 classic drones Simple logos and shapes. Best suited for small spaces.
$149,000 300 classic drones Dynamic animations, vid shapes, figures, text, etc.
$199,000 300 premium drones Bold and creative 3D animations
$299,000 500 premium drones Larger and more detailed 3D animations and art
Custom Pricing More than 500 drones Larger animations and art featuring thousands of drones

This may not be a suitable price for a small business, but there are smaller startups offering lower prices for small drone shows. I’ll mention a few later in the article.

How many drones are needed for a show?

The number of drones needed for a show can range from 10 to hundreds or thousands depending on your budget, the size of the audience, the space available to execute the show, and the choreography.

For a local drone show, you should bring together at least 50 drones. But as mentioned, the Olympics, mall openings, and other shows with a large audience can use up to 5,000 drones.

Drone Show Software Price

The Drone Show Software by UGSC (link), a leading drone software developer, may be the only commercially available software for designing and executing drone light shows. They didn’t indicate this software’s pricing, but going by the pricing of other software by UGSC, you can expect to pay between $600 and $2000 as a one-time fee to use the software. Besides the software, they also provide training, making them a perfect fit when you want to start your own drone light show business. But Blender, the software used to create 3D animations, is free.

How much does it cost to start a drone light show business?

It’s difficult to estimate the exact cost of starting a drone light show business. But below is a highlight of everything you’ll need to help you estimate the cost.

  • A team of FAA-certified/ licensed pilots.
  • Drones (50-500)
  • You may need to apply for waivers for flying the drones at night, above people, or in restricted airspace.
  • The 3D Amination software
  • The Drone flight planning software

Top drone light shows

Below are some of the most popular drone shows.

2021 Tokyo Olympics Intel Drone Light Show

The Tokyo Olympics drone show is one of the most recent shows and one of the most talked about. Intel used 1824 drones to form a globe in the opening ceremony, which was a sight to behold.

2018 Winter Olympics Intel Drone Show

The 2021 Olympics isn’t the first time a drone light show was displayed at the Olympics. Intel had already used this technology to display the Shooting Stars drone display in the 2018 Winter Olympics. This was a series of 1218 drones programmed to form the Olympics logo and other patterns.

The Largest Drone Show Ever

Initially, the record was held by Shenzhen Damoda Intelligent Control Technology Co. Ltd (link), who built a coordinated show of 3051 drones. Before that, the record was first held by Intel, who coordinated a fleet of 2066 drones, then by a Russian display that exhibited 2200 drones.

But the Shenzhen’s drone display shows the full potential of a light show where they displayed the Chinese Space Station, Beidou Satellite System, and Tiangong 1, a Mars Exploration Rover.

The record is currently held by Shenzhen High Great Innovation Technology Development Co., which managed to execute a drone light show featuring a whooping 5164 drones, breaking all the other records.

The Longest Drone Show Animation – Vincent Van Gogh tribute

EFYI organized this drone light show in partnership with Tianjin University as a tribute to Vincent Van Gogh (1853 to 1890), a famous post-impressionist painter. Even though he only sold one of his paintings during his lifetime, he became one of the greatest painters of all time. This drone show lasted 26 minutes and 19 seconds.

Top Drone Show Companies

Below are some of the best drone show companies.

Intel Drone Light Show

You might already know Intel (link) from the computer industry since they are behind the X86 platform. And as we’ve already established, they’re pretty big in the drone light show industry, too, having participated in at least 2 Olympics and having broken at least 1 Guinness World Record.

According to a statement on their website, they have organized at least 1,000 drone shows in more than 20 countries. Due to the high costs, their services are best suited for governments, corporations, and sport enterprises.

Verge Aero

Verge Aero (link) is a good alternative for a drone light show, especially when you’re on a budget. As we’ve discussed, drone light shows are time-consuming and costly to assemble, making them suitable for the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and other huge businesses. But Verge Aero tries to make drone shows accessible to smaller corporations by offering a decent performance starting as low as $20,000.

They are able to cut down the cost by using their own software that simplifies flight planning while minimizing human errors. Secondly, they use fewer brighter drones. Thirdly, all drones have the whole flight plan, which means they can place the drone anywhere, and there will be no confusion.

HireaUAVPro

Hire a UAV Pro (link) is one of the largest directories or hiring platforms for drone pilots and drone services. They’ve also ventured into drone shows, offering a service similar to Verge Aero for small and large businesses.

Great Lakes Drone Company

Some of the photos the Drone Light Show Company uses (the fraud – see below) are from Great Lakes Drone Company (link), a legitimate drone company offering many drone-related services, including drone shows. Other services they offer include agricultural applications, aerial imagery, search and rescue, thermal inspections, and event coverage.

Fraud alert – Drone Light Show Company

Drone Light Shows has been offering (or promising to offer) drone light shows since 2017. A quick check on their pricing page will show that their drone show prices start at $15,000. Considering Intel drone shows start at $99,000, the Drone Light Show Company seems to offer an incredible bargain. Unfortunately, Drone Light Show Company is a fraud.

According to this post, and this post, Drone Light Show Company, That Drone Show, Wildly Creative Marketing, and other companies affiliated with David O’Neal have been taking money from businesses and failing to show up for the light shows. Other names you may come across include Alex Anderson, David (or Dave) Collier, and David (or Dave) Shanahan.

Beware when hiring a drone light show company to avoid being scammed.

Holiday/Christmas Drone Shows

Drone shows are becoming even more accessible for holidays. You don’t have to wait for the next Super Bowl or Olympics to see a drone show. For instance, Intel helped Walmart organize a holidays drone show at Fair Park, Dallas, in December 2020.

If you’d like to see one of these shows in person, you’re in luck. Why? Grapevine, the “Christmas Capital of Texas,” will have two drone shows (link), one on December 11 and another on December 18, 2021. These shows will be organized by Sky Elements, a local drone shows company, which was also behind the Texas Halloween Drone Show. As much as you can watch the videos later, I’d drive across the country to watch these shows in person.

The future of fireworks

For all that drones are making waves in the light show industry, fireworks are not necessarily out on their ear quite yet. Some changes are taking place in the fireworks industry, which could help make it more viable. Below are the main ones.

  • Silent Fireworks – Silent fireworks are gaining popularity. As mentioned earlier, fireworks cause noise pollution. Silent Fireworks (link) aren’t entirely silent, but they emit less noise, making them favorable for kids, pets, or people who can’t tolerate loud explosive sounds.
  • Daytime Fireworks – One major challenge of using both drones and regular fireworks is they work best at night. But there’s a growing demand for daytime fireworks, and they’re now a thing.
  • 3D Choreographed Fireworks – It’s now possible to display a choreographed fireworks show by designing 3D animations and simulating how the fireworks are executed, as well as the speed of the wind to make sure the choreography is successful.

Let’s not forget that some people still prefer the loud explosions of fireworks. If drones don’t phase out fireworks completely, we may begin to see event organizers combining both of these technologies.

Conclusion

The next time you see various formations across the sky, don’t mistake them for communication from extraterrestrial intelligence. They could be hundreds or thousands of drones designed to form all sorts of shapes and sizes.

In this article, I’ve discussed how it all works, from building the drone, choreography, testing, and deploying the drones using specially designed software. I’ve also mentioned some companies you can reach out to if you’d like to mesmerize your customers or members of your community with a drone show.

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