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Are Drone Light shows the future of Fireworks? - Propwash #8

Are Drone Light shows the future of Fireworks? - Propwash #8
By Nihal Mohan • Issue #8 • View online
Fireworks were invented about a thousand years ago, and are getting old. It’s 2021 and with climate change being our generation’s greatest threat, we need greener and cleaner alternatives. Drones do a pretty good job at that. Here’s how -

🎆 Limelight on drone lights
People watching the inauguration of the Tokyo Olympics this week were treated to a special spectacle. Apart from the usual fireworks display there were 1824 drones lighting up the sky, seamlessly transitioning between the Olympics logo and a revolving globe. The drone display caught the eyes of millions around the world, leaving them with awe and inspiration.
Video: The Drones of the Olympic Games #Tokyo2020
Video: The Drones of the Olympic Games #Tokyo2020
Drone light shows or drone displays are not new. They have been featured in the recent G7 summit, Dollywood, Chelsea’s celebration of their Champions’ League victory, President Biden’s Inauguration and more. They’re not new to the Olympics either, the Winter Olympics in 2018 had a show with 1218 drones. Both events for the Olympics were organized by Intel’s drone light show division.
Drone light shows have even been used as aerial QR codes to advertise games and even music releases. With increasing adoption, these are bound to become ever common and prevalent in our modern cultural landscape.
Given the press and attention that the recent Olympics show has got, it’s a good time to understand how they work and what goes behind the scenes of these modern-day spectacles.
Coordination problems 🚦
Naively, one might think that conducting a drone light show is quite simple -
  1. Get a lot of drones
  2. Fly them at the same time in cool patterns
  3. ???
  4. Profit
Reality is often more involved than that and there’s a lot of complexity involved in having many drones flying in coordination so close to each other at the same time.
Traditionally, flying a drone has been a 1:1 process with one pilot controlling one drone. Almost every drone has capabilities which enables it to fly autonomously. The pilot only has to keep a sharp eye on the aircraft and intervene when required.
1:1 processes don’t scale well. The next obvious step is to have one pilot monitor several aircraft simultaneously, creating a 1:many process. This is possible with advancements in safety and the autonomous capabilities of drones. Skydio, which makes drones with state of the art autonomous drones, calls this stage 4 of autonomy. Stage 4 is when there are multiple drones controlled by the same pilot.
Skydio's levels of autonomy. Credit:Skydio
Skydio's levels of autonomy. Credit:Skydio
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.
  1. How do you ensure that the drones maintain a safe distance from each other and go precisely where you want them to?
  2. How to prevent them from bumping into each other while flying specific paths?
  3. 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.
Oppo's drone show with one little fella (bottom right) returning to base on failure.
Oppo's drone show with one little fella (bottom right) returning to base on failure.
In the case that they do fall out of the sky (which has happened multiple times), the drones are equipped with guards that protect people from the fast spinning propellers. In 2018, an Intel Shooting Star drone during an indoor light show fell out of the sky on the head of a TechCrunch reporter. He wasn’t hurt, but described the feeling as -
… someone dropped a cardboard box on my head. It felt sharp and light
later adding -
But are they ready to be used inside, above people’s heads? … Safety has always been baked into the Shooting Star programs, but I’m not sure the current protocols are enough.
The incident occurred indoors and were likely not using RTK technology as GPS doesn’t work very well indoors. But it shows to how easy things can go wrong. The organizers at intel were aware of the rogue drone, so their system did detect this little shooting star that became a meteorite.
Drones and Fireworks
Are they going to be the future of fireworks? Yes! Drone light shows are
  • Non-polluting
  • Infinitely configurable
  • Safer than harmful chemicals intentionally designed to explode
  • Modern and what the 21st century deserves
  • Unique and cleaner
But also they’re not quite there yet. While it can be argued that they’re probably a lot safer than fireworks, the cost of a show is what ultimately drives adoption. The pricing page on Intel’s website lists the cost for shows based on number of drones.
Intel Drone show pricing. Credit - Intel
Intel Drone show pricing. Credit - Intel
That’s a lot of money. Fireworks are multiple orders of magnitude cheaper, and will continue to dominate festivals and celebrations until the price of drone light shows come down. There’s plenty of competition to Intel in the drone light show market coming up every year. As Intel learned the hard way in the CPU market, increased competition will lead to price cuts that benefit the consumer. I reckon that in the next decade, the prices for drone light shows can become cheaper by an order of 10 or more.
Record for most number of UAV's airborne simultaneously
Record for most number of UAV's airborne simultaneously
The number of drones in a single light show is increasing every year and new records are being broken. The latest record-breaking show had 5200 drones! If the trend continues, we’ll see much more impressive shows and the cost for smaller shows coming down. I dream that by 2050, orders for drone light shows will be in the tune of Megapixels.
🚁 Other drone news this week
Hardware and Software
  • V-copter, a drone with a unique V-shaped bi-copter design is ready to ship. I can’t wait for third-party reviews on stability, features and overall performance. The craft has an impressive flight time of 50 minutes.
  • Counter-Drone technology company Andruil secures a $99M contract from the Defense Innovation Unit in the USA. To put that in perspective, the total funding for counter drone technology last year was a meager $150M.
  • Researchers create algorithms powered by AI that beat humans in a drone race. However, It’s still in a controlled environment and takes an hour to compute.
Public Safety and Policy
  • The Department of Defense wants to remind everyone that DJI drones are banned and “still pose threats to national security”. This news comes after reports of two models cleared by an audit in the beginning of June.
  • Malaysian government faces backlash over their purchase of 16 DJI Matrice 300 RTK drones at 40 times the actual price.
  • Flying drones above 500g in Australia now costs an annual fee of $40(Australian) for registration.
  • Drone Delivery Canada, the Canadian drone logistics company receives a domestic cargo license to carry out drone deliveries in Canada
Drones for Good
  • Drones continue to prove their worth in public safety for Search and Rescue. The latest examples involved finding a missing dog.
🐦 Drone footage of the week
Listen to some peaceful birdsong with serene scenery in this drone shot from Reddit user P2591 - An early morning over the river.
💡Not Drones
Every week I also share something that’s not about drones but is hard to pass by. This week’s pick is a classic essay by Paul Graham -What you can’t say.
🏁 Wrapping up
Did you find this issue worth your time? If you did, why not share it with your friends and colleagues?
If you liked this issue, and want to discuss, reply to this mail. I answer every mail I receive.
Keep flying,
Did you enjoy this issue?
Nihal Mohan

Every week, I share the most important ideas, news and insights from all over the drone space and tell you what matters.

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