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A drone display moves into the stadium during the Tokyo 2022 Olympic Games opening ceremony © Lui Siu Wai/Xinhua News Agency/ PA Images

How do drone displays work?

From London’s new year fireworks to the Tokyo 2022 Olympic opening ceremony, coordinated drone displays are creating spectacular light shows in the night skies, with clever engineering creating a system that can be flown safely and repeatedly. Drones – or uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) – are a widely used technology, with uses ranging from filming in hard-to-reach places for TV shows and films, to carrying out remote maintenance, to monitoring the weather or getting that perfect photograph.

In recent years, coordinated drone light shows have become more prominent. These displays are performed by illuminated, synchronised and choreographed groups of drones that arrange themselves into various aerial formations, from cars and words to moving patterns and animals. While the drones themselves are not unusual (How does that work? Drones, Ingenia 73), they are fitted with LEDs (light-emitting diodes) in different colours to light up the night skies.

Coordinated drone fleets came to prominence in a 2012 TED talk about autonomous robots that swarm or flock, sense each other, and form teams, delivered by Professor Vijay Kumar, the University of Pennsylvania’s Dean of Engineering. That same year, a coordinated display of 50 drones over Linz in Austria at the Ars Electronica Festival was the first of its kind and set the world record for ‘most UAVs airborne simultaneously’. Since then, drone displays have been used for advertising purposes, PR stunts, and at major events such as Olympic and Paralympic ceremonies. In March 2021, the world record was broken by luxury car brand GENESIS, which flew 3,281 drones in formation above Shanghai to announce its arrival into the Chinese market.

To create these shows, designers first put together a storyboard and timeline that shows the required images and effects, then software engineers create a synchronised flight path for each individual drone. Advances in technology have made it possible to fly hundred of drones together – a complex algorithm directs the drones to where they need to be throughout the display and onboard cameras and proximity sensors ensure that they don’t collide in the air. For the drones to act as a swarm, each drone communicates and shares data with its neighbours – knowing the intended shape of the display via the algorithm and communicating with drones in the immediate surroundings is enough to form the intended shape. Drones do have limited processing power in their onboard computers, but technology is advancing all the time so in future they could move adaptively by themselves without needing to be programmed in advance.

A ground control station sends the unique program via radio signal to the drone and when the time is right – the batteries fully charged and the flight area clear – the drones set off to complete the storyboard in the sky. The ground control station is operated by a pilot, or pilots, who continuously monitors the flight paths. They are also usually aviation experts with specialist knowledge of airspace restrictions and laws prohibiting drone use, as well as having a keen eye on the weather – displays can’t happen if it’s raining or if there are high winds.

While coordinated drone light shows are being seen more regularly, several factors do limit their use, including high costs, the time and labour needed to produce them, and regulatory and safety approvals. They could also potentially disrupt birds’ flight patterns. However, drone light shows could be an environmentally friendly alternative to fireworks: drones don’t produce any polluting emissions or loud noises, are reusable, and reduce the risk of wildfires in places with drier climates.

So, while you’re still more likely to see such displays at big events or for advertising purposes, a coordinated drone light show could soon be at your next local Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

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