Magic in the Sky

In January, Sydney and Melbourne hosted rival drone light shows designed by the world’s biggest – rival – producers. Adam Thorn goes backstage with the key players, at home and abroad, to find out why the tech will change how the industry views itself.

Sydney Harbour may well be Australia’s most famous landmark, but it’s also a working port.

 

Each day, more than 40 ferries sail to 36 wharves, with the first departing before sunrise and the last braving Manly’s swell to return at 1:12 am. So when Andrew Crowe was asked to oversee the country’s first major drone light show at Circular Quay, he was told he couldn’t begin rehearsals until after the last ship crept home in the dead of night. The bleary-eyed preparations for ‘Elevate’ capped a frantic build-up to the New Year event, which the NSW government only green-lit in November to mark the city’s emergence from lockdown. “A couple of people said it just wasn’t possible to do a show like this in three weeks,” says Crowe, a director at drone consultancy firm Mirragin. “But I thought, ‘Well, we’ll give it a crack.’” 

 

His job, in essence, was to help recreate a show designed by creatives at computer giant Intel in the US, but tailored specifically to reflect NSW’s First Nations heritage. Each night during the four warm-ups, the team – including one Aussie pilot and two flown in from Germany and Finland – would gather on a 50-metre barge floating alongside the Harbour’s cruise ship terminal, and unpack the drones from their huge crates unloaded onto the vessel. The boxes contained ‘pods’ of six individual drones, with 540 delivered in total. In the week following Christmas Day, the pilots would experiment with ascending more drones in the sky until they had the performance down pat.  

 

“There are three main stages to the show: launch, animation and recovery,” says Crowe. After the pilot hits play on a computer, an initial five-minute countdown sequence begins as the drones slowly wake from their hibernation and the system picks a final team of 500 for the display. “They launch independently of each other over a 95-second period and go off to sit in a certain spot in the sky. The animation lasts eight minutes, and at the end, the system decides which drone is going back to which pod.” It works only because each aircraft has its own unique flight path independent of all the other drones. A second pilot also keeps a watchful eye on a ‘control centre’ piece of software, which monitors each device’s performance in real-time. The system, both manually and automatically, can pull down a misbehaving drone, with the audience being none the wiser. 

 

The effect is extraordinary. It’s hard to explain in words what experiencing a drone light show is like, but the best I can do is to say it has a spiritual, otherwordly quality to it. What, by day, are miniature helicopters with light bulbs bodged underneath, at night, transform into pulsating extraterrestrial orbs. Whisper it, but the whole thing has more in common with an elaborate illusion, not just in the disciplined practice beforehand, but the sly misdirection. The clever bit isn’t what the drones do when they’re illuminated, it’s what they do when they’re not; the sleight of hand that sees the devices slip into the darkness and sneak towards their next spot in the sky to carry on the performance.

 

It means, for the first time, aviation is breaking free of its stoic shackles of regimented turnaround times and marginal gains to embrace a hitherto alien concept – imagination.

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It’s a matter of fierce debate as to when – and who – flew the first drone light show, but Intel arguably pioneered the modern technology. In 2015, its CEO, Brian Krzanich, asked his innovation team to draw the brand’s logo in the sky, and before long, a specialist division was hurriedly formed to meet demand. Today, Intel has performed more than 1,000 displays on six continents, including the St. Patrick’s Day Festival in Dublin and the opening ceremonies of both the summer and winter Olympics. 

 

“For our engineers, this has been a passion project for 10 years now,” Dani Napier Harrison, the team’s general manager, tells me from Arizona in the US. “We started small and simple, just tinkering around and exploring what we’d like to do.” The early challenge, she adds, was recruitment. How do you find employees with a background in a technology you’ve created? “This industry has just grown up around us. We developed the software around our creative ideas and then hired graphic designers and artists who we trained to use it.” Harrison now heads an eclectic 24-person team that mixes pilots with aviation safety specialists, animators, software engineers, project managers and sales staff. 

 

In fact, the division has matured so quickly Intel is already on its third-generation device. Its latest can produce more than four billion colour combinations and uses real-time kinematic (RTK) GPS – a smarter version of what you’ve got on your phone – to avoid collisions. However, the real breakthrough in its development was overcoming the battery paradox. The lighter the drone, the less power it needs to function; but the heftier the battery, the brighter the bulbs can be. Intel’s solution was to build the frame from soft plastics and Styrofoam to limit the weight to just 340 grams. “Good powerful, trusted batteries are really, really important,” says Harrison. “We want the brightest LEDs possible.”

 

The communication with the tech on the ground is even more intelligent. Invisible ‘geofences’ mean the drones can’t fly outside of the display area – preventing them from crashing onto spectators’ heads – while they’re also programmed to return to their pods should their GPS get jammed. “There’s ultimately backups after backups after backups,” says Aviassist founder Ross Anderson, who trained the overseas pilots to pass their local licences. It’s hard to miss when something goes awry, too, as the software on the laptop represents every one of the 500 drones with an individual, pulsing red light. “There was clearly some thought put into the human-machine interface.”

 

Yet perhaps the most important element in making the displays dazzle is the craftsmanship of matching the paint to the canvas. “First, you have to consider what space you’re going to fly in,” says Harrison. “And then what the weather will be. What’s the prediction? What did it look like last year? Will we have a two or three-dimensional show and therefore, how many drones do we need? What kind of colours should we choose?” Sydney Harbour proved a tricky location, she adds, because there are so many lights from buildings across the other side of the harbour. Finally, the team had to ensure there were no people below the drones, meaning the Harbour’s ferries had to be shut down for the duration of the display. “All of that happens at the same time,” concludes Harrison. “But as I watched it develop, it got prettier and prettier, and better and better. It was a fun process.”

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Nobody knows who set off the first firework, but most agree the Chinese pioneered the technology when they invented gunpowder 1,000 years ago. The earliest displays were likely created by setting alight to rolled-up tubes stuffed with gunpowder’s explosive mixture of charcoal, sulfur and potassium nitrate. However, some say their invention goes back even further to the second century BC in ancient Liuyang, where men would throw bamboo stalks onto fires. (The overheating of bamboo's hollow air pockets creates a bang, which it was thought scared away evil spirits.) It wasn’t until the 13th-century, though, that Marco Polo brought gunpowder back from China to Italy, and early pyrotechnicians experimented with launching firecrackers and delaying their explosion until mid-air. 

 

Fireworks became a phenomenon, used to mark just about every major event from music festivals to Superbowls, Olympic ceremonies and jubilees. In the US, it’s thought fireworks were set off during the very first Independence Day celebration in 1777. In the UK, displays are held every year on 5 November to mark the foiling of a plot to blow up King James I. Australia, too, has a special relationship with fireworks, with some estimates suggesting up to billion viewers watch Sydney’s New Year's display on the news, the result of it being the world’s first global city to see out the year. While it’s hard to verify any kind of estimate, the global fireworks market is undoubtedly worth trillions. 

 

The science behind bangs and whizzes in the sky is a fiendishly clever, early-engineering marvel, involving two main components – and two big explosions. At the bottom of the structure is a mortar (a short steel pipe) packed with gunpowder, and resting on top is the firework ‘shell’ itself. When an initial fast-acting fuse is lit, it sets off an explosion within the mortar that shoots the shell into the sky. But that explosion ignites a second, slower fuse that acts as a literal ticking time bomb, exploding only when the firework is high enough. 

 

Packed within the shell is gunpowder – as you’d expect – but also what’s known in the trade as 'stars', which shoot off in all directions after the detonation. The stars are the secret sauce of fireworks, containing metals that produce different colours. Pyrotechnicians experiment with different substances, to achieve different pallets: strontium carbonate makes red; calcium salts and calcium chloride turn orange; salt creates yellow and barium compounds and chlorine go green. Blue, one of the toughest effects, consists of copper compounds and chlorine. Creating the ‘shapes’ is far simpler, with the stars simply arranged on a piece of cardboard in the desired configuration. As for the noise? Well, that ‘boom’ is actually a sonic boom caused by the gases expanding at a faster rate than the speed of sound. 

 

The problem is that firework technology has long been at the zenith of what’s possible, and much like your iPhone, are now seeing only incremental improvements. “Who wants to watch fireworks for the 500th time in your life when drones are dynamic?” argues Aviaassist’s Anderson. “Every year, drones are always going to be a different display. You’ll wonder, ‘What have they created for us this time?’ It’s television in the sky.”

 

Firework fatigue is just the start of the sector’s issues. In an environmentally conscious world, can we really justify blowing up stuff for LOLs, when it leaves behind toxic metals and carbon monoxide? What about all the terrified Terriers and petrified Persians diving under the table when they hear the noise? And of course, fireworks kill significant numbers of people each year, particularly in countries that sell them over the counter. In 2020, for instance, 18 people died from firework-related incidents in the US and 15,600 were treated in emergency departments for injuries. 

 

“Drone light shows will replace fireworks in the long-term,” says Crowe. “Fireworks probably came out of nowhere but technology gets replaced and entertainment gets replaced. In the interim, we’ll see both, because there’s a real emotional grab to fireworks because they’ve been part of your life. But drones’ ability to do more is what will make the difference. Fireworks are great because they go bang, but the potential to tell a story is really fascinating.”

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In December 2020, the Scottish government handed Tony Martin a preposterously unlikely break when it asked his team to perform at the nation’s Hogmanay NYE celebration. Martin had only formed his drone light show firm earlier that year – weeks pre-pandemic – and at the time, ‘Celestial’ was just a few of them in an office in southwest England. “It was crazy,” Martin tells me today. “No one quite knew what to do or how the lockdowns would work or any of that stuff. So what we said to them was, ‘We can create you a COVID-safe event because if we have a controlled venue and hold it outdoors with social distancing, it’s the perfect solution to New Year’s Eve.’”

 

But as the performance drew closer, the government became nervous as COVID cases rocketed. Quick-thinking Martin, though, came to the rescue. “We said, ‘Here’s the solution: we’ll fly in the Highlands of Scotland, place the drones electronically in city centres and then comp it together.’” The resulting 14-minute film became a breakthrough moment for the drone light show sector globally, amassing 12 million YouTube views within a week and generating media coverage in 50 countries. 

 

What made it so groundbreaking, I’d argue, was that the devices complemented, rather than overawed, a poem readout chronicling Scotland’s ongoing battle with COVID, set to a haunting score by a local Celtic fusion band. The drones were simply one part of an ensemble piece, rather than a gimmick with music bolted on. “It’s all about narrative,” reflects Martin. 

 

Celestial’s Hogmanay moment was less serendipitous than it seems. Martin was previously a heavyweight music exec — rising to vice president at Sony Music, no less — before an unusual career sidestep saw him establish a business that specialised in drone infrastructure projects. “It was years ahead of its time, but it was a little dry,” he admits. “My background is creativity.” It was only after he’d given up on uncrewed devices that he bumped into a stranger at a Christmas party who had an unusual idea about drone swarms. “I said, ‘Hold on, I’ve been around the block a few times. I can probably raise some money. The rest is history.” 

 

Today, Celestial’s USP is that it uniquely operates as a one-stop-shop, handling every aspect of the process from initial idea to storyboard, animation and performance. It’s a different approach to the NSW government, whose light show event involved a breathless list of stakeholders. “We’re just negotiating with a client over in Vegas,” says Martin, “and they needed six companies to pull all the threads together when they last flew drones.” For Martin, the essential ingredient is a unified creative vision, which can only be achieved by keeping all its band members together. “That’s absolutely key.” 

 

It’s also, he hints, why the Victorian state government picked Celestial to run its own rival drone show held during the very same month as Sydney’s. “To get Melbourne, we beat Intel,” thumps Martin, clearly aware of the rivalry between the two cities. “I think what we’ve achieved is far more emotionally engaging than Sydney and has far better storytelling. It doesn’t go from one graphic to another graphic to another graphic – it flows. It tells you a story. And for us, it’s not just about the technology or the number of drones, it’s about the overall emotional engagement.”

 

Of course, Sydney would hit back that their show featured 150 more drones (350 vs 500), which were also far more technically advanced. They’d also likely insist they cared just as passionately about creating that all-important narrative. “We created a story that literally brought people to tears on the quayside,” says Martin of the Melbourne displays. “You had all the little kids go ‘Oh and ahh’ and ‘Oh my god, it’s going to turn into a dolphin!’ And the parents listened to the poetry accompanying it with tears rolling down their cheeks, smiling as they looked up at this amazing thing. It’s about doing more with less and drawing all the creative threads together. And you can only do that if it’s one agency, interfacing with all of those different skill sets – spoken word, music, animation, storytelling – in one place.”

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Perhaps the most intriguing thing about our new drone light show industry is its ability to grow both ways. The record for the biggest display, for instance, now stands at a mind-boggling 5,200 drones (to mark the centenary of the Communist Party of China). But conversely, displays are now being used by an exhaustive list of smaller companies such as ad agencies, tourism boards and corporate brands to mark occasions ranging from film premieres to grand openings and sporting finals. They’ve even been used to place a QR code in the sky. 

 

“There’s a market right down to school fetes and right up to NYE fireworks,” says Mirragin’s Crowe. “At the moment, I think it’ll be larger events, but that will move down as the industry matures.” Early adopters are already getting in on the act: in Derbyshire village of Willington in the UK, 1,000 residents braved the chill to watch a light show featuring only around 30 drones last November. Closer to home, Aussie website dronesforhire.com sells 50-drone packages catering to smaller businesses putting on simple displays. “Whether you fly 500 or 1000, the process is nearly the same,” points out Crowe. 

 

The devices, too, are still in their first significant generation and are likely to improve quickly as batteries, fuselages and software improve. We tend to obsess over cumulative numbers, but soon we’ll have longer-lasting shows with quicker and more agile drones. The upshot of that, of course, means handing creatives the tools to design animations just not possible now. “There’s going to be the ability in the future to do a four-hour show,” says Crowe as an example. While you maybe won’t have 500 drones in the air simultaneously, he adds, there’s no reason why you couldn’t have a bank of 2,000 on the ground with the devices rotating in and out. And that’s not including the human element, too, as a generation of designers emerge who have spent their whole careers honing the craft. 

 

Yet that exciting future will also require lots of clever thinking to negotiate some pretty big roadblocks. In 2022, drone light shows tend to be greenlit by regulators on an ad-hoc basis, while bodies such as CASA – perhaps understandably – aren’t necessarily familiar with their workings. The Melbourne Celestial show was actually delayed because it couldn’t get sign-off in time. CASA sniffed the show “did not meet the required standard”, but it also emerged logistic delays hampered pilots’ ability to train. Martin said the safety authority is still too ingrained in manned aviation. “Drone swarms have as much to do with flying a single drone, or manned aeroplane, as they have to do with driving a steam engine. They’re not the same thing.

 

“No one is flying those drones; the drones are flying themselves. What we’re doing is monitoring complex systems and intervening, looking at safety. And CASA doesn’t quite understand that. The person flying the drone needs to be a system engineer. They need to know about networks, software, Wi-Fi, and satellite communications. CASA needs to engage with companies like ours, and we want to help them create the framework that will allow this sector to bloom. Because right now, it’s a huge inhibitor.”

 

There’s also an argument that current safety rules globally are just generally far too stringent. Do the poor Intel and Mirragen team, I’d argue, really need to be practising at the dead of night? It’s at least one topic where the NSW and Victoria rivals might find some common ground. “DJI released some interesting statistics revealing their drones had flown 150 million miles worldwide, but there’s not been one fatality,” argues Martin. “I would ask, especially with the recent history of Boeing, can manned aviation say the same thing? Aircraft carry tons of fuel and hundreds of people, yet we are being held to the same levels of scrutiny.”

 

But right now, the drone light show innovators aren’t letting those worries get in the way of their giddy enthusiasm. Since Sydney, Mirragin has been inundated with interest and reckon they could put on three or four more shows this year, while British-based Celestial has just hired six pilots Down Under with another performance coming up at the Adelaide Fringe festival. “We’re just on this crazy trajectory, which is akin to holding on to the side of an express train at full speed,” Martin says. “The market is almost endless.”  

The best analogy he can think of to sum it all up is to compare the progress of drone light shows to computer games. “Right now, we’re the handheld Gameboy with black and white colours and 8-bit graphics. But where we’ll end up is a PlayStation 5 with not just high-resolution graphics and better pixel density, but different materials.” Martin knows the secret to his continued success will be fighting ahead of rivals with breakthrough tech. Already, he’s experimenting with different payloads, lighting and potentially incorporating fixed-wing aircraft into his displays. 

 

“I can’t give too much away,” he tells me, “but there are certain things we want to do in the live sphere. We want to control the drone and not just do pre-animation. And we’ve figured out how to do that, but we just need a specific upgrade to our hardware to achieve that at scale.” It teases the tantalising possibility of a world where the devices could interact with an audience like a stand-up comedian. “The technology will evolve, and we’re also looking at everything from heavy-lift to nano-drones and different ways of putting light in the sky.

 

“We’ve got an awful lot of stuff that no one will have ever seen before.”