E&T | There’s no business like drone business

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SPH Engineering
April 20, 2021

Article by James O’Malley (E&T)

Drone light shows are now an essential part of any high-profile outdoor event. How do they work?

New Year’s Eve 2020 was always going to be different from previous years. London’s Westminster Bridge and Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens both remained empty of revelers and there were no huge explosions of fireworks when Big Ben struck midnight. Instead, both capitals turned to emerging performance art to mark the new year while reflecting the public mood: drone shows.

Over London, an array of 300 light-up drones illuminated the sky, each acting as a pixel to form images representing the year that had just passed: an NHS logo, a heart, the late Sir Captain Tom Moore, a ‘Black Lives Matter’ fist, a blue-and-yellow EU dove and - perhaps most relatable - Zoom’s ‘You’re On Mute’ microphone symbol. In Scotland, the dulcet tones of David Tennant accompanied drones forming up to create a stag, a whale, and a Scottish saltire.

These events were not unique. Though the technology behind them is still new, drone shows are increasingly a fixture at sufficiently large or important public events. An enormous silhouette of a running man in the sky above Shanghai became a viral sensation in 2019, and in November last year, the finale of President Biden’s victory speech in Delaware saw drones take to the sky to form up the United States flag and the number ‘46’, the number of Biden’s presidency. But how exactly do drone shows work?

“We don’t use waypoints; we use frames like in the movies,” explains Alexey Dobrovolskiy, the CTO of SPH Engineering, which makes Drone Show Software, the software package used by the Scottish show. For each second in a show, the drones know the set of coordinates where they need to be or movements they need to perform, and they remain synchronized using the ultra-accurate time signals from GPS satellites.

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