Pixels in the night: why drone light shows are taking off

Intel Shooting Star drones at CES 2018

Rather than its usual gunpowder-powered lightshow, Travis Air Force Base in California celebrated Independence Day 2018 with a sky full of stories. An animated sequence of red, white and blue ‘fireworks’ transformed into the US flag, followed by images celebrating the base’s 75-year history – the airplanes flown by its pilots, the Golden Gate Bridge, the California bear, and an airman saluting in the sky, all choreographed to music.

Unusually high winds meant the July 4 show was delayed until the following evening (the drones can operate safely in gusts up to 18mph), but everything ran according to plan when the weather was right.

When you see it in person, that visual clarity and brightness is phenomenal

Anil Nanduri, Intel

“We had perfect conditions,” Anil Nanduri, vice president and general manager of Intel’s Drone Group, told TechRadar. His team designed and executed the display specially for Travis. “We had two-year-olds tearing up. It was an honor for us to celebrate the troops.”

Nanduri’s enthusiasm is infectious, and he’s keen to explain that – as with fireworks – drone shows are hard to do justice with photos and videos.

“We’ve done almost 300 shows in 15 countries, and each time is a different experience,” he said. “This is an ability to experience the night sky in a way we never could before by using pixels in the sky that are programmable. If you try to take a picture you don’t get the same experience, but when you see it in person, that visual clarity and brightness is phenomenal.”

Intel Shooting Star show at CES 2018

Shooting Star drones made an impressive display at CES 2018 in Las Vegas, choreographed to music. Image credit: Intel Corporation

Intel’s Shooting Star drones were created specifically for light shows. Each one weighs just 330g, and once programmed, an entire show can be launched with the press of a button.

Each location comes with different demands, depending on where the audience sits, and their viewing angle. A show where everyone is seated in bleachers at one end of a field calls for a different approach to a show where they’re spread in an arc along a bay, for example.

This is an ability to experience the night sky in a way we never could before

Anil Nanduri, Intel

“You have to design a show to be three-dimensional for all the audience. In some shows the audience is very much in front, but the animation isn’t a 2D screen – it’s a 3D volumetric screen. We have four billion light combinations controlled in real time.”

The images on that ‘screen’ are created using regular 3D modeling applications Maya and 3ds Max, with specially developed plugins that let the designers see the animations exactly as they’ll appear in the sky. The software also has a built-in safety feature that prevents drones colliding; if two drones occupy the same space at once, the designer is alerted so they can fix the problem.

Smoke-free shows

The drones look amazing in motion, but that wasn’t the only reason for using drones at Travis. Just an hour south of the base, people were being evacuated from their homes as wildfires tore through the tinder-dry brush. Light shows are an Independence Day tradition, but fireworks in the middle of a drought wouldn’t be worth the risk.

Drones also cause less pollution, and the fact that they’re re-usable means there’s less waste. Each drone might take more resources to make than a rocket, but it’s not limited to a single flight, making it a more compelling prospect for the environment and organizers’ wallets.

It also means displays are more flexible. “Given their programmable nature, it’s not a one-time show – it can evolve,” said Nanduri. “It doesn’t have to be tied to one single annual event. The more you re-use them, the better the economics.”

Intel Shooting Stars at the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang

Drone light shows are infinitely customizable. Intel's display for the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang included sporting mascots and the Olympic rings. Image credit: Intel Corporation

Drone displays are far quieter than fireworks, which can be distressing to animals, though experts recommend taking care around pets and wildlife.

“Traditional firework displays are extremely loud and bright, which can frighten pets and wildlife, increase their stress levels and even put them at risk of becoming lost, displaced from their natural environment, or hit by cars on roadways,” said Dr Pamela Reid, vice pesident of the ASPCA’s anti-cruelty behavior team.

Traditional firework displays are extremely loud and bright, which can frighten pets and wildlife

Pamela Reid, ASPCA

“Because fireworks create a sound animals don’t hear very often, they may become upset based on the volume and/or the unexpected pattern of the noises. Quieter alternatives to traditional firework displays that cause less of a disturbance to animals could be a positive change to keep animals safe and calm, but it is also difficult to predict how dogs would react to large drone displays.

“While softer sounding alternatives could be a step in the right direction, it’s important for pet owners to take necessary steps now to keep their pets safe if their community is putting on a traditional firework display. Pet owners can visit www.aspca.org for tips on how to keep pets safe and calm.”

UK-based animal welfare charity Dogs Trust agrees. “Fireworks can be extremely distressing to dogs and owners and we welcome ways to help improve dog welfare around fireworks,” said a spokesperson.

“As there is little evidence into the effects drones might have on our four-legged friends, we wouldn’t be able to advocate their use without further research.” The RSPCA also declined to recommend the use of drones as an alternative until more research is done.

Flying low, aiming high

Drones aren’t limited to the open skies; Intel has also created a version of Shooting Star for indoor displays, where fireworks would never have been feasible.

These craft are smaller and lighter than their outdoor counterparts, with propellor guards making them safer to fly close to the audience, but the biggest challenge for indoor shows was navigation.

Intel Shooting Star Mini drone

Intel's Shooting Star Mini drones are designed specifically for indoor shows, and have their own positioning system that doesn't require GPS. Image credit: Intel Corporation

“We had to build out own scalable location system that allows the drones to fly without GPS,” Nanduri explained. “We’ve flown 110 drones indoors, and you can fly them over people’s heads.”

He and his team aren't stopping there. “The displays are only going to get better,” he said. “The precision gets better, and the scale gets bigger. [The show at Travis] was 500 drones, we’ve done a world record of 1,218, and we’ve gone on the record saying we’ll break that."

Nevertheless, he says there's still room for the noise and spectacle of a traditional light show. Drones just give us more choice.

"Fireworks have their own charm, but they’re the only technology we had for centuries. Drone displays give you a level of precision – you can put stories and animations in the sky."

Cat Ellis

Cat is the editor of TechRadar's sister site Advnture. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better)