The drones that announced Joe Biden as the 46th president-elect

Who needs chemical explosions when you have a fleet of LED-laden UAVs?

You’ve seen them over sporting events, music festivals and political rallies; aerial drone displays have lit up night skies since the technology’s 2012 debut at Ars Electronica Futurelab. No longer a niche entertainment spectacle, these light shows can feature massive swarms that are often presented right alongside traditional fireworks displays. And as small drone technologies continue to advance, these swarms are sure to grow.

Drone swarm technology, in varying applications, has been pursued for years by government agencies like DARPA, where it’s being investigated for military stuff, as well as private research institutions, such as University of Colorado Boulder where it’s being explored as a search and rescue tool. Getting robots to not only sense the others around them but to actively work in concert, in pursuit of a common goal, enables the group to accomplish tasks that no individual could do on their own.

There were 49 SPAXELS drones involved in the maiden 2012 Ars Electronica flight in the skies over Linz, Austria and in the years since, the number of drones that can be commanded simultaneously continues to grow. Swarms can be comprised of hundreds, even thousands of craft.

“Technically we have the capacity of 5,000, 10,000 or even more because we have an intelligence command and control system to range all of our drones,” Zhiyuan Li, vice president of EHang Egret, which once put on a 1,374-drone show at the City Wall of Xi’an in China, told Inavate in 2019. “But such a big show will be limited by lots of factors, like we have to apply for the certification of the airspace first, which will definitely be very large.”

Intel currently holds the world record for most unmanned aerial vehicles airborne simultaneously, which was set as part of the company’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2018, when they launched 2,066 drones as a single swarm and flew them over the company HQ in the shape of the Intel logo.

The Shooting Star drone used in that record breaking flight is one Intel itself developed. The diminutive quadcopters are constructed out of styrofoam and lightweight plastics to keep their weight under 333 grams and extend their flight time. Each is outfitted with LEDs capable of producing more than four billion color combinations, enabling the drones to essentially act as single pixels in the swarm’s larger overall display. To date they have performed in more than 600 events including the PyeongChang Winter Olympics 2018 and Lady Gaga’s halftime show at Super Bowl LI, where 300 formed a waving American flag behind the singer as she performed.

Shooting Star

The drone air show business is not an easy one, only around two dozen such outfits exist worldwide. Production companies face significant operating costs, especially for insurance, and also must comply with stringent FAA regulations. In the case of Verge Aero, the company behind the show at president-elect Biden’s victory speech on Saturday in Wilmington, Delaware, they require a pair of FAA waivers. “One of them is to fly at night, you need a special permission to fly at night,” Verge Aero CEO Nils Thorjussen told Engadget. “Then you also need special permission to control more than one drone from one pilot. So if you have one person operating two, three, or 100 drones, that requires a waiver from the FAA.“

Specific details about Biden’s event show were not available on account of numerous NDAs, however Thurjussen estimates that a modestly-sized show could be assembled by a crew of just two people in around an hour, though larger displays would obviously require more setup time. A large part of the show’s lead time is devoted to programming the drones’ movements in Blender or a similar program. Not only does each drone need its own choreography, the production team must go back through manually to ensure that none of the drone’s vectors overlap which translates into a real-world mid-air collision. For its part, Verge Aero uses its own in-house program called Design Studio which streamlines the creation and programming process, enabling users to move a theoretically unlimited number of drones around a virtualized performance space.

“Verge Aero’s design software lets users select graphics and special effects and place them in a timeline, similar to those found in video editing software,” Thorjussen wrote in May. “This software calculates the flight paths of each drone to guarantee they don’t collide in the air and generates a full 3D rendering of the show to ensure it looks exactly as intended. Every drone is sent a unique program and the ground control station monitors each drone over a local, encrypted network for maximum safety.”

The company also keeps its drone manufacturing in-house with its X1 UAV. “We wish we could just buy a drone that does what we require,” Thorjussen remarked. “We need to have an integrated light as part of the show, we're also very safety conscious so we have redundancy and communication technology and the ability to jump where we are in the [radio] spectrum.”

“Some of these entertainment events like music festivals, where you have just loads of cell phones and all kinds of other communication technology being used,” he continued “It's really important that we can look at the radio spectrum and put ourselves in a place where there's not a lot of activity in order to ensure that we have reliable communications with the drones. So there are a lot of things that we just have to do ourselves and there really is no option to buy off the shelf.”

The X1 is built to pretty demanding specs. It can fly for up to 20 minutes (really a 15 minute show and some reserve for takeoff and landing) in winds as stiff as 25 mph. Its carbon fiber frame holds a blindingly bright 900 lumen LED as well as multiple radios to ensure the UAV remains in constant communication with the pilot on the ground. But for as complicated as the swarm’s movements are, the drones themselves possess virtually zero autonomy. Their relative locations are monitored by a centralized dashboard rather than the other drones around them and their movements are preprogrammed before lift off.

Thorjussen admits that, right now, his company isn't looking too hard at radically upgrading the drones in the near future, instead preferring to further refine the event production process. “We've really been focused on just trying to make the system as rock solid and reliable as possible,” he said. “It's really important because everything needs to be scrutinized. We want to continue to make the design tools easier to use and things like that, but I'd say that we've made huge strides in the usability of the system.”

Still, he’s excited for the industry’s overall future. “There's tons of opportunities within the drone space, doing all kinds of different interesting things and what I'm excited about is getting this technology in the hands of creative professionals,” Thorjussen said. “We've really just begun to exploit this technology.”