In 2018, Intel stunned the world when their 1,218 Shooting Star drones took to the skies of PyeongChang, South Korea, to mark the opening of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. In 2020, Chinese company Shenzhen Damoda Intelligent Control Technology Co., Ltd. broke that record by flying 3,051 drones. Drone light shows are a modern-day spectacle but how do thousands of drones form perfectly synchronized patterns in the sky? Let’s understand how a drone light show works:

How does it work?

There are several factors that go into making a successful drone light show. It ranges from the type of drone to the algorithms that guide the drones on their accurately calculated flight trajectories.

Type of the drone 

Drones that are used for light shows are extremely lightweight and consist of a battery, an LED module, and GPS sensors. The lighter the drone, the less power it needs to stay airborne and the easier it is to control. For instance, Intel’s Shooting Star drones were entirely made of plastic and foam without a single screw. Since these drones fly in a pre-programmed flight path, they do not require a lot of sensors.

Intel's shooting star drone
Intel’s Shooting Star Drone

Mission Planning

This process is the longest part of the entire show. It takes anywhere from a few weeks to several months to choreograph the movement of hundreds of drones. The mission planning occurs using proprietary algorithms and 3D animation software like Blender. Using custom-designed algorithms, flight planning teams are able to create the perfect trajectories for each drone. This usually happens through an iterative process to smoothen out and create the best-suited flight paths.

Dr. Nora Ayanian, Assistant Professor and Director of the ACT Lab at USC and MRS chair has extensively worked on the science behind UAV swarms. Watch the video below to understand how this iterative process works in creating flight paths for drone swarms.

The drone show is then simulated in a 3D animation software like Blender. Here the flight paths are monitored and conflicting paths are altered to avoid collisions. However, with improving technology, software like Verge Aero is emerging that automatically makes anti-collision calculations.

Pre-Flight Checks and Bon Voyage

Hours before the actual show, the batteries of all drones are charged and each drone is loaded with the full copy of the show blueprint. The ground station checks the readiness of the drones. There’s just a single pilot managing all the drones from a central computer.

Intel's Shooting Star Drone

Finally, the drones take off and begin ascending into their programmed trajectories to reach their final positions. Replacement drones are kept ready in case a drone is rendered non-functional. The drones are monitored throughout the show for airworthiness and airspace safety.

Watch glimpses of the largest drone show in the world below:

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