Drone Light Shows Are Becoming More Sophisticated and Popular Than Ever

For many Americans, especially children, fireworks displays are a quintessential part of an annual holiday celebration – especially the Fourth of July.  The sight and sound of rockets exploding and soaring across the night sky are a visceral reminder of the nation’s battle for its freedom and independence.  Cities and towns spend enormous sums on these seasonal events, and each year try to find new ways to outdo the previous year’s display.  As well they should.

But fireworks displays aren’t safe and comfortable for everyone.  They are extremely noisy and sometimes scare and traumatize bystanders – including elders, war veterans and children, as well as pets.  They also spread thick choking smoke and spread litter everywhere, requiring extensive clean-up.  Worst of all, burning fireworks embers can land in dry grass, starting uncontrolled blazes.  In recent years, fireworks displays in a number of locales have been blamed for igniting massive wildfires, resulting in extensive property damage.

This past summer, several cities in southern California and a few elsewhere – concerned about the threat posed by wildfires during the dry hot summer months – took an extraordinary step:  they decided to cancel their fireworks displays. But they didn’t cancel the fun.  Instead, they turned to drones.

Drone “light shows” – less dazzling to some, but even more so, to others – are becoming not just a national sensation but a global one.  The current worldwide market stands at roughly $1.2 billion – up from virtually zero two years ago – but is expected to double by next year.  Some long-standing fireworks suppliers, sensing a shift in the market, have begun purchasing drones and hiring pilots to fly them.  Others are joining the market for the first time; still others have decided to hold off – for now.  But with demands for compliance with public and environmental health standards growing – and drone technology still evolving – the rising consumer trend is unmistakable.

What’s involved?  With the proper training, designing and managing a drone light show is actually quite simple.  All it takes is a fleet of small highly agile drones affixed with LED lights and a remote data system  that can synchronize their movements in flight. The main cost is the technical engineering that goes into translating a visual concept for a show into its actual choreography. It requires some sophisticated sensor-based programming, but by today’s standards, it’s not rocket science.  Drone designers are performing far more sophisticated operations in a growing number of drone commercial niches.  Still, ensuring flawless synchronization and continuous movement – over a period of 15-20 minutes or more – to achieve the desired visual effect is no small feat.

And the hardware can be expensive – usually $250 or more per drone – costs which add up quickly. A drone light show with a minimum of razzle-dazzle will require at least fifty drones, but more likely a few hundred, and maybe even 500. That’s $125,000 just for the hardware.  But it all depends.

For example, a show depicting a succession of multicolored images of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, the Liberty Bell – with accompanying theme music – is fairly easy to accomplish technically – and relatively cheap.  Presenting mobile images – George Washington riding a galloping horse, for example, or drone light rockets soaring and falling just like fireworks – is more involved.  Having drone lights skip and dance to the syncopated beat of live music?  Costly – but doable.  Some of the latest and most expensive events incorporate such design elements.

A recent example of a Midwestern town embracing the drone light show experience is Lincoln, Nebraska.  In September, the university of Nebraska hired Fantasy Drone Shows based in nearby Norfolk to perform a simple feat:  Hover over a nighttime football game being played at the university’s Memorial Stadium to announce the sold-out attendance to the fans.  The company, formed just a year ago by a team of renegades from a well-known regional fireworks company, took to the task with relish.

At 8:30 p.m. 150 Fantasy Drone Show drones suddenly appeared in the northeast corner of the stadium to proclaim the news in large bright lights:  “92, 003.”  The crowd, unprepared for the spectacle, went wild, as the stadium announcer alerted them to the display.

It was just the start of something big.  Fantasy Drones subsequently performed a more elaborate display at the state’s annual Volleyball Day and then returned to Memorial Stadium to perform a display on September 30.  The University athletics department says the drone shows are a huge hit, and budget permitting, plans to make them a regular part of stadium sporting events.

Fantasy Drones is typical of some of the start-ups that are jumping into the drone light show market heads first.  Owner Don Wisniesky sold his insulation business and a few rental properties to get the company going.  And with a few successes under his belt, he’s already purchased another 200 drones.  His ultimate goal is to expand his fleet to 1,200 and to offer his company’s services nationwide.

“The more drones you get, the more things you can do,” Wisniesky told the Norfolk Daily News last week.

Drone light shows aren’t just for small towns and their local sports teams, of course.  A growing number of major league football, baseball and soccer teams are beginning to hire drone light show companies to highlight their events.  And major corporations are beginning to promote their brands with elaborate light shows that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – in some cases, millions.  Tens of thousands of people view these events on site but their avid promotion online is amplifying their exposure still further.  What began as a niche experiment – and as a replacement for fireworks – is fast becoming a major new drone niche that is just beginning to fulfill its true potential.

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