In 2012, the Ars Electronica Futurelab wowed audiences in Linz, Austria with SPAXEL, the first drone light show. SPAXEL, which stands for space pixel, went on to pave the way for drone light shows. In 2015, SPAXEL set a Guinness World Record with a performance of 100 drones. It came as no surprise that one of the biggest technology companies in the world, California based Intel, took interest in the technology driving drone light shows. Intel introduced Shooting Star, their light show drone, with an aerial display of 500 LED equipped drones in November of 2016, setting a new world record. Intel’s Shooting Star set the standard for drone light show displays. Over the last few years, drone light shows have grown in popularity and become a new norm for entertaining crowds.
Drones have been used to entertain audiences at concerts, the Superbowl, the Olympics, Disney, holiday celebrations, and more. 2020 may go down in history because of the worldwide spread of COVID-19, but what went hand in hand with the pandemic is also the widespread use of drones. Drones were used to deliver medications and supplies to people, remind people of social distancing guidelines, and even disinfect public areas. But, one of the most popular uses of drones in 2020 was the huge number of drone light shows that were put on. All over the world, drone light shows were held to thank the countless essential workers fighting the virus and bring hope to the public. And while Intel’s Shooting Star is still one of the most popular drones for these shows, another company based out of Philadelphia, PA has been giving Intel a run for their money.
In 2014, Anthony Merlino and Tony Samaritano founded Verge Aero from within the University of Pennsylvania entrepreneurial technology incubator, Pennovation Works. As described on Pennovation’s website, “The 23-acre property adjacent to Penn’s campus accommodates, in state-of-the-art facilities, researchers, entrepreneurs, and industry partners solving real world problems and translating inventiveness into viable ventures.” It provided the perfect environment for Anthony and Tony to bring their drone light show to fruition.
Many companies will orchestrate drone light shows. The majority of these smaller companies use Intel’s Shooting Star. With Verge Aero, Anthony and Tony built the entire system from the ground up. This means all the hardware and software needed to put on a drone light show. The Verge Aero drone is significantly larger than the Shooting Star. The large size means that the drones have a larger and stronger battery with a 20 minute flight time. Because of the greater battery power, fewer backup drones are needed for a performance. The drones are also a bit more hardy so they can be flown in winds up to 25mph. The drone is approximately the size of a DJI Mavic Mini, a standard personal drone. On the bottom of the drone is a dome shaped LED light about the size of an orange. This light is also larger and stronger than those on the Shooting Star, giving Verge Aero’s shows a unique visual edge with 900 lumens at full white light.
One of Verge Aero’s strongest features is the software that is used to choreograph and execute a drone show. Each drone show is coordinated through a highly secure ground station. The ground station is an isolated network so it is impossible to hack into the drones from an outside internet source. The only way to communicate with the drones is through a single portable ground station. The station’s software can be uploaded with performance parameters in a matter of hours rather than the weeks it takes to write the code needed for other drone shows. As Verge Aero’s website proudly points out, “Creating a drone show shouldn’t require writing lines of code or wrangling multiple pieces of software designed for other purposes. Every feature needed to create and operate a show is integrated into a single software suite that empowers the designer.”
The combined results of in house built hardware and software deliver a truly impressive experience. Verge Aero has put on drone shows for the likes of Cold Play and the Rolling Stones, the Olympics, festivals, and competitions. Perhaps one of Verge’s proudest moments is when they put on a show to thank the health care workers of Philadelphia. After seeing how cities like Manhattan cheered on those struggling to help COVID-19 patients, Anthony and Tony realized that they too could help cheer on essential workers. From the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field, Verge lit up the sky with drones creating iconic Philadelphia symbols, and images of hope and thanks. And as Daniel Gonzalez, a UPENN safety specialist said, “With the current situation of COVID-19 and everything being shut down, the first responders are basically one of the few people that are putting in extremely long hours as such. And anything to take their minds off the current situation, just for a couple minutes, it takes the stress and makes it dissipate a little bit.”
The show was so appreciated by the medical community and the entire city of Philadelphia that it caught the attention of Joe Biden’s campaign team. On November 7, 2020, Verge Aero had the honor of putting on a drone light show in celebration of President Elect Joe Biden’s victory speech from Wilmington, Delaware. Drone light shows have come a long way since the first SPAXEL show in 2012. This past year alone, drone light shows have provided entertainment while helping people safely social distance. That small bit of entertainment means a lot to people right now, so you can be sure that more drones will be gracing the night skies to delight audiences in the foreseeable future.