UVify, a c-drone manufacturer founded in 2015 and headquartered in San Francisco with offices in Canada, China, and South Korea, is launching a subscription-based drone swarm lightshow service for event planners at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) which begins in Las Vegas on Tuesday (Jan. 8).
The company has developed its new quadcopter IFO (“Identifiable Flying Object”) drone to be optimized for lightshows, claiming a flight time of 25 minutes, longer than other drones used in light show displays. The units are stackable for efficient transport and use a proprietary inertial measurement system for positioning, without external GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System), which means they are immune to the jamming which disrupted a drone light show in Hong Kong last year and are thus suitable for indoor use (rotor guards are available as an option). An array of LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) provides programmable color changes from an RGB (red/green/blue) palette of over 16 million colors. The drone is said to be wind-resistant to 18 mph (29 km/h) gusting to 24 mph (38 km/h). UVify provides software which extracts each IFO drone’s flight path from animation vertices designed in Blender, a popular free and open source 3D creation suite. Communication link between the controlling computer and the drones for trajectory upload, launch and emergency intervention if necessary is by Wi-Fi, with a backup radio link according to region.
UVify’s subscription service, dubbed “Drone as a Service” (DaaS), is meant to simplify maintenance while reducing costs and and may open a new market segment for smaller operators such as wedding planners or DJ lights and sound services, or independent drone pilots offering services to event planners. The offer may also interest nightclubs or casinos which want to schedule regular indoor shows. The base cost is $99 (€87) per month per IFO drone on an annual basis, with a fleet of 20 drones minimum. Larger swarms can be assembled by fleets of 20 IFOs each. Training, technical support and maintenance is provided by UVify and any problematic drone will be replaced quickly according to the company which says the software and hardware can scale up, so it is possible very large lightshows rivalling the megashows by Intel Corp. and EHang Inc. could be designed and performed.
Drone swarm lightshows are a relatively new phenomenon these past four years. They are usually performed outdoors at night when there is little or no wind, with a swarm of drones all taking off together from a matrix layout, bedecked with globes containing LEDs and forming colorful organic and geometric figures, not unlike the murmuration of large flocks of starlings. Such shows are often suggested as a high-tech alternative to traditional fireworks, which are loud, smoky, and disturbing to animals; drone light show events are generally quieter, often accompanied by music to mask the buzzing of the hundreds or thousands of rotors. Some shows are now produced indoors. Event planners usually must obtain permits in advance for outdoor shows.
The key challenge with drone swarm lightshows is the software which instructs each drone precisely where and when to fly, and which colors (or none) to display during the show. Intel Corp. and EHang Egret, part of China’s EHang Inc., have developed choreography software in-house. A Latvian startup founded in 2013, SPH Engineering, sells software called Drone Dance Controller (DDC), which can associate a “waypoint” flight path file — comparable to an EDL (Edit Decision List) file used in audiovisual production — to an individual Pixhawk-equipped drone. The waypoint files are generated from a 3D animation created by a digital artist in Blender or another package.
Intel has a drone lightshow department and manufactures several versions of its own drone, called the “Shooting Star”, not available to the general public; the company’s first public show was at Disney World, Florida, in 2016. EHang Egret flew 1,374 “Ghostdrones” in a show last April at the City Wall of Xi’an, setting a new world record which was broken three months later by Intel which flew 2,018 drones over its site in Folsom, California. Also in 2018, the Winter Olympics opened to a prerecorded Intel drone performance, Time magazine used Intel drones for the cover of a special report, an Intel drone fell on a journalist’s head during a lightshow for Audi, and the Hong Kong Tourism Board had to cancel shows after nearly half of a fleet of 100 drones by Singapore’s SkyMagic fell into Victoria Harbor just after takeoff due to deliberate GPS signal jamming. Swarm drone lightshows are growing in popularity; other startups specialized in drone lightshows are Firefly Drone Shows, Arrowonics, Drone Light Show Co., China’s High Great, France’s Dronisos, Switzerland’s Verity Studios, and RotorScape.