Drones are well-known for their multifunctionality: used for military operations, asset protection, wildlife monitoring, search and rescue, surveillance, videography, photography, and more. Drones, known technically as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), were first developed in 1849 when the Austrian military created the balloon carrier, the earliest iteration of a motorized UAV. However, another century would pass until sufficient technological innovation allowed for the production of drones in their more modern form. At first, the drones’ main purpose was to carry explosives and tackle dangerous military operations. Now, artists and engineers have teamed up to create a new purpose for UAVs: drone shows.
The first artistic demonstration using drones took place just a decade ago. In 2012, Ars Electronica Futurelab—an institute dedicated to new media art—held a world premiere of their spaxels (space pixels). Since then, many other companies followed suit, such as SKYMAGIC and Verge Aero. Drone shows are steadily growing in popularity. In 2017, Lady Gaga performed at the Super Bowl. While she recited the Pledge of Allegiance, drones maneuvered into formation, creating the shape of the American flag.
The growth in the versatility of UAVs, from exclusive use in military capacities to their current ability to create colorful, immersive light shows, has been rapid. As drones become more accessible and affordable, they will be increasingly used in novel, innovative ways. Could drone shows eventually replace traditional fireworks shows? It is certainly a more environmentally friendly option. However, drones may be prone to malfunction—with potentially hazardous consequences. At the 2023 Women’s FIFA World Cup, for example, several hundred drones went haywire and dove straight into Melbourne’s Yarra River.
How Drone Shows Work
The drones used in shows are not the same as militarized UAVs. When creating a drone show, companies often employ quadcopters—a drone with four rotors. Attached is an LED light that ultimately creates the intended character, shape, or object for the show. Engineers and designers choreograph each UAV to program its path,, so each drone seamlessly executes its role as part of a grand image suspended in the sky. Companies like Celestial use a specialized algorithm that prevents collisions and ensures smooth flying.
Drone shows exemplify the beauty that can be created when technology and artistry come together. Expert coders and creative designers collaborate to concoct magnificent light shows, demonstrated in displays such as Burning Man 2022.
Performances can cost anywhere from $150,000 to over $1,000,000, depending on how extravagant organizations want their shows to be. The largest show to date was held in Zhuhai, Guangdong, China, by Shenzhen Damoda Intelligent Control Technology Co., Ltd. in 2020, featuring an astounding 3,051 drones flying simultaneously.
Drones In Action
Hundreds of drone shows have been organized since drones began being used in non-military settings. Drone art has evolved from simple 49-drone shows to complex and highly orchestrated demonstrations featuring flying dragons. Most drone shows are held in celebration or promotion for a certain event (e.g., the Olympics, New Year’s Eve, a Prime Video movie premiere), elevating traditional billboard advertising. Other demonstrations, however, aim to immerse their viewers in a transcendental world to brilliantly display an artist’s legacy or to send a moving political message.
In 2021, Greenpeace displayed a drone show for the G7 Summit, an assembly of the world’s most powerful leaders. This demonstration was a rare example of drone-basedArtivism—a term describing art meant to inspire political and social change. Greenpeace’s drone show scorned the continued lack of climate-based reform and showcased the widespread environmental destruction caused by dangerous governmental policies. Drones formed images of many extinct and endangered species like the bee, blue whale, sea turtle, whooping crane, elephant, and more.
While drone art’s main purpose is to display dazzling and captivating shows, companies have found new ways to use audience-worn LED devices to create a similar visual effect. Musicians, as artists, use their music and lyrics as a means to craft compelling narratives. Some performers have employed technology to enhance these narratives. Taylor Swift has used this strategy for many of her stadium tours. Upon entry, every fan is handed an LED bracelet. When the concert begins, the bracelets light up in accordance with her performed setlist. Swift’s Eras Tour, the highest-attended tour of all time, has famously employed this technology. For example, during her performance of “Lover,” hearts form in different areas of the crowd, created by the mosaic of illuminated LED bracelets. During her performance of “Look What You Made Me Do,” a snake slithers through the crowd. Though these bracelets are not drones, their programming technology and corresponding visual effects are quite similar.
In eleven short years, the drone art industry has exploded. As drone technology advances and UAV accessibility increases, drone art will likely evolve and grow to new heights—potentially replacing traditional 4th of July fireworks. Like any other art form, drone shows tell a story and facilitate emotional responses. However, these performances represent an innovative, highly immersive experience that distinguishes the art form from its audio-video counterparts. Drone shows are the quintessential intersection between technology and imagination.
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