Drone light shows are like that. There’s a couple of trained remote pilots on-site who are ready to take over any drone if required. Each pilot can monitor anywhere from 25 drones to several hundreds in the case of larger shows. Intel claims that in recent shows, a single operator can monitor an entire show containing 400 drones.
I use the word “monitor” because the entire show is fully programmed beforehand. There’s little for the pilot to do, and certainly not control multiple drones simultaneously. That would be an absolute nightmare and a recipe for disaster. The reason that one pilot can monitor so many drones is because of some interesting advancements in drone technology. 👇
The tech making it happen 🔧
There are three major problems in flying a lot of drones in the same space and making them dance in beautiful patterns.
- How do you ensure that the drones maintain a safe distance from each other and go precisely where you want them to?
- How to prevent them from bumping into each other while flying specific paths?
- How to ensure that if something goes wrong, it’s detected early and taken care of?
The first one poses a dilemma - to create detailed patterns, you want the drones to be as close to each other as possible. But if you get them too close, you run the risk of them bumping into each other and raining down from the sky.
Drones use GPS sensors (technically GNSS sensors
) to know where they are. The typical ones have an accuracy of 3-5 meters. That’s acceptable for a single drone flying alone. But when you’re commanding hundreds of drones to precise positions a meter or two away from each other, the inaccuracies add up and you run the risk of having a collision.
The drones used in light shows have advanced GPS sensors that use a clever technique to have higher accuracies. These are called RTK receivers
and work on a technique called Differential GPS. That’s technical jargon for having a fixed GPS unit on the ground and using its data to increase the accuracy of other GPS units nearby. So essentially, the drones in the air “correct” their GPS positions with reference to the one fixed on the ground.
This is some really cool technology! I’ve worked with RTK receivers before and they are so accurate, they can tell apart the fingers in an outstretched hand by placing a receiver on each finger. Compare that to your phone’s GPS that struggles to stay in the correct lane in a 50-meter highway. RTK receivers on the other hand, can be accurate to 2 centimeters or fewer!
The second problem is how you make them not
bump into each other while flying in three-dimensional space doing intricate patterns. This is a hard problem and some of the brightest minds of our generation are working on efficient techniques and algorithms that makes planning flights for multiple drones easy. There’s even recent research
on swarm flying with in-built collision avoidance.
Planning for hundreds or thousands of drones involves a lot of computation power and Intel has built custom software and algorithms that run on powerful hardware. These flight plans are calculated well in advance and are sent to each drone which then use the RTK GPS units to follow the plan as precisely as possible.
Reality has enough murphy-ness
in it and it wouldn’t be prudent if the light show organizers can’t handle common types of failure appropriately. The drones are built with mechanisms to detect several kinds of system failure and are programmed to retreat safely away from the rest if such an event occurs.