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Drones: The Future of Performance Art

As drone performances become more common place, creating your own artwork in the sky isn’t as complex as you may think.

By Gerwin Co
April 7, 2022

“Drone art.” You may not have heard of this phrase before, but you’ve definitely seen it.  

Think of when hundreds of drones lit up the sky above the Tokyo Olympic Stadium to form the Summer Games’ emblem as artists sang John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  

Or that time when a thousand drones generated the face of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to herald the opening of Riyadh Season.  

There’s even that epic moment when over 3,000 drones took to the sky in Zhuhai to create images of China’s space program for a Guinness Book record-setting performance.   

Drones, or to use the more technically correct term ‘unmanned aerial vehicles,’ have found their commercial niche as a means to capture panoramic shots from the air, for surveillance in hazardous or hard-to-reach environments or to function as autonomous couriers for short-range deliveries.  

But as the above videos show, drones are fast becoming a form of entertainment. It has become a purveyor of art, eliciting “oohs” and “aaahs” at a scale that was previously only heard during firework displays.  

 

BEGINNINGS OF A HIVE 

The origins of drone art can be traced as far back as 2012, when FutureLab—the R&D division of Austrian cultural, educational, and scientific institute Ars Electronica—published a paper that proposed an algorithm for organizing “swarms” in LED-equipped quadcopters. Two years later, they put this theory into action when they flew 50 drones above the Danube River and formed various cube- and cylindrical-based patterns. 

During that time, a German start-up called Ascending Technologies was also working on its own “sense and avoid” algorithm for “light painting” across the sky. The start-up was then acquired by chip giant Intel, who integrated their own imaging and depth recognition technology with the algorithm. In 2015, Intel flew 100 drones for a seven-minute light show performance set to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—which at that time earned them the Guinness Record for the most UAVs airborne simultaneously.  

Since then, Intel has been one of the leading creators of drone art and has displayed its work around the world. The company has created drones that are purposely-built for drone art—meaning they are light, stable, and equipped with powerful LEDs. More importantly, Intel has also perfected the software needed to choreograph these UAVs, making it easy for show designers (or artists) to translate their vision into a flight path. 

But Intel isn’t the only player in town. Verity Studios from Switzerland mounts drone art for Royal Caribbean Cruises and Cirque de Soleil, and also counts musicians like Metallica and Drake as clients. Like Intel, it manufactures its own drones (the Lucie) and choreographs them using its proprietary software. And it’s not just drone light shows that Verity produces, Lucie drones have also been modified to carry props like disco balls, flowers, and confetti above audiences. 

Latvia-based software firm SPH Engineering has developed a drone dance controller that it can license to customers looking to translate 3D animations and performances in the air. Meanwhile, China’s UVify is renting drone swarms for use in both outdoor and indoor settings with a flight time of up to 25 minutes. 

With these companies and more competing in this nascent industry, there is a growing belief that it will eventually supplant firework displays when there’s a need to mount an aerial dazzling spectacle. Analyst firm PriceWaterHouseCooper estimates the drone-powered media and entertainment industry to become an US$8.8 billion market. 

Photo: Unsplash

 

PLANNING FOR LIFT OFF 

Drone art is technically a sophisticated light show. It is performed by drones equipped with color-changing LEDs, and then synchronized to follow a pre-choreographed flight path to create the desired aerie formation (which is basically the art).  

While it does sound complex, creating a typical performance is pretty straight-forward. First, decide on what you want to show. You can collaborate with designers or even animators to storyboard your vision. They will then translate and choregraph your idea using software and feed the flight path to the drones. After this, it’s all a matter or securing a wide enough area and clear weather to execute the performance. 

It should be noted though that there are different regulations governing how, where, and when can drones be flown. So it would be prudent to check out the local laws first during the planning stage. For example, in Australia, commercial drones can only be flown with a remote pilot license. In the US, the Federal Aviation Authority does not allow drones to be flown over a crowd. While here in Hong Kong, drones cannot be flown near airports or even at Victoria Harbour (because it’s used as a flight path for helicopters). 

 

IT’S ALL ABOUT SWARM TECHNOLOGY 

The critical ingredient in all of this is the software. Just to clear up any misconceptions, the multiple drones involved in a typical drone art performance is controlled by a central ground station, and not multiple people flying them individually.  

The software is key in ensuring individual drones will be where they’re supposed to be, and not interfere (or worse collide) with the other drones.  

Does the number of drones matter? Not necessarily. While we’ve seen what a performance involving 3,000 drones can do, it doesn’t take a whole lot of them to create a compelling performance. As technology advances, drones have become more stable and stay up for longer, and are also equipped with far brighter LEDS, therefore reducing the need for more of them in the air. In the end, it depends on what you’re trying to achieve or display that will dictate how many you need. 

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