After China banned fireworks in 400 cities across the country, Intel and Chinese drone firm Ehang have emerged as the leading providers of alternate sky entertainment: highly coordinated drone swarms. Said swarms often encompass a thousand drones forming intricate maneuvers to create breathtaking imagery.
Swarm drones were most notably used in the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, during the 2017 Super Bowl, as well as during Coachella 2017. For the Winter Olympics, Intel operated 1,200 drones to create a prerecorded show that mesmerized viewers.
— Stephanie (@OliveYou618) February 26, 2018
Give the drone pilots a gold medal! #ClosingCeremony
— Ray Gonzalez (@iRayGonzalez) February 26, 2018
You’ve gotta admit that the drone show was pretty awesome! #ClosingCeremony
— Andrew YeagerBuckley (@andrewyb) February 26, 2018
Similarly, Lady Gaga’s 2017 drone swarm half time performance was prerecorded earlier in the week to avoid potentially injuring Super Bowl attendees. However, Odesza’s performance at Coachella was performed live with 300 drones. In all three shows, Intel exclusively used their Shooting Star drones; however, Chinese newcomer Ehang is looking to further commercialize the budding industry. Ehang’s May 1 live performance in Xi’an, China featured 1,300 drones and was watched by more than 100,000 people. This performance earned Ehang $1.6 million and is leading many to believe drones are the new way.
In an interview, Anil Nandhuri, the general manager of the drone group at Intel suggested fireworks may soon be replaced:
“Fireworks create a lot of pollution and noise […] We all enjoy fireworks, but that has been the only way you could enjoy something in the sky other than being in Norway and looking at the Northern Lights. […] What you’re seeing in the Shooting Star system is the ability for you to create that story. […] You can now paint in the sky, but without the pollution. It’s reusable and it’s safe.”
The UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) has long argued that there must be a better way since traditional fireworks are harmful to animals. RSPCA estimates that 45 percent of UK dogs are fearful when they hear fireworks go off. American dogs are not immune to startling, and American company ThunderWorks even sells compression vests to help ease severe anxiety for dogs and cats during thunderstorms, fireworks, and other periods of loud noise.
The RSPCA also noted that farm animals can be “easily frightened by loud noises and sudden flashes of bright light, which can startle them and cause them to injure themselves.…Wildlife can be frightened and burnt after making their home in bonfires.”
However, although they boast many benefits, the RSPCA also asserted that drones aren’t perfect: “[They are] not without their own negative issues such as spooking horses and livestock or colliding with birds, and can cause disturbance to animals and members of the public.”
Drones swarms aren’t just occasionally used for entertainment, and have led many to question the extent of regulation needed. In the rural areas of America’s Pacific Northwest, small scale drone swarms are regularly used to drop seeds and spray herbicide. DroneSeed currently operates 3 drones at a time (all by one operator) and is one of 15 companies currently licensed to operate multiple drones at once in the U.S.. DroneSeed hopes to operate 15 airborne drones at a time, such a development has led to questions surrounding their mass legalization and potential applications in the U.S..
When asked, DroneSeed founder Grant Canary said:
“Swarm drones vs. flying one drone are essentially the same difference between running a couple miles on the treadmill at the gym vs. running a marathon, where you’ve got to make sure you have officials running a race, and you’ve brought your own Gatorade and glucose pack.”
Drone swarms require complex communication between drones and the inspection of numerous pieces of equipment and the careful charging of each drone’s battery pack. So far the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has only approved one operator per drone and an exemption to operate multiple at once is very difficult to achieve in the U.S. Commercial operators like Amazon have been exploring the potential of drones to deliver purchases, but the regulatory environment is likewise difficult.