Of all the weird and wonderful applications that have taken off in the drone industry, one stands out as unique, inspiring and transformative in its own small way.
We’re talking about drone light shows: pre-programmed drone swarms fitted with LEDs and sent into the sky for a choreographed aerial performance.
Sure, they aren’t assisting first responders, saving lives or bringing new levels of efficiency to businesses. But there’s no doubt they have the power to entertain and, most importantly, to provide a relatable connection between emerging drone technology and the average joe.
Drone light shows are a testament to the progress being made in the industry right now, even if their purpose is purely aesthetic.
So who’s in the race to perfect drone light show technology?
Intel: setting the standard
It’s safe to say that drone light shows wouldn’t have reached the mainstream without significant investment and publicity from technology giant Intel.
The company’s journey to create aerial masterpieces started in 2015, with a partnership with Austrian tech/art institute Ars Electronica. Using the institute’s ‘Spaxel’ drones, Intel was able to set a new world record by syncing 100 of them with a live orchestra performing Beethoven’s 5th in the skies above Hamburg, Germany.
Since then, Intel’s aerial ambitions have grown bolder. What started as something of an experiment became a fully-fledged journey into the potential of drones for entertainment and promotional purposes. The company now develops its own ‘Shooting Star’ drones.
Intel’s performances have grown in stature, with more drones taking on more advanced coordinated stunts. You might have seen Intel’s fleet in the skies above the Super Bowl, Coachella festival, the Wonder Woman movie launch and more.
Most recently, the Intel team set a new world record – this time with 1,218 drones flying at once – as part of the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. However, just like with the Super Bowl, the performance couldn’t be done live because of safety concerns. Pre-recorded flights had to be used instead.
EHANG: making up for lost time
Chinese drone manufacturer EHANG has been the first major company to challenge Intel’s drone firework dominance. The company is best known for the 184, a passenger drone that’s already completed successful test flights with people on board.
But EHANG may have stretched too far when trying to coordinate over 1,300 drones in a new world record attempt earlier this month. Although technically successful, footage of the performance above the Chinese city of Xi’an’s shows that a large number of the company’s Egret drones were not in sync at all.
EHANG had to issue a public apology after ‘external interference’ rendered several of the words unreadable.
EHANG also has domestic competition from the likes of ZeroTech and High Great, both of which are starting small, with hundreds rather than thousands of drones in sync.
Drone Light Shows: What’s the big deal?
It’s easy to dismiss drone light shows as a superficial and unimportant use of drone technology. But that would be missing the point.
Many members of the public are still sceptical of drones; plenty of regulators are yet to be convinced, too.
Capturing hearts, minds and imaginations is the best way to ensure that drones are seen in a positive light. There’s no doubt that these illuminated, aerial acrobatics can help in that regard.
There is also no better way to inspire the next generation of engineers and drone enthusiasts. Sure, bridge inspections, real estate media and search and rescue missions are important and inspiring in their own way. But if you want to really wow a crowd and get people on board, gazing up at a 1,300-strong drone light display is a good place to start.