© istock
December 2021

Fireworks of the future

By Björn Carstens
Around the world, fireworks and rockets are a traditional part of ringing in a new year, even though these fine-dust particulate bombs are neither healthy nor good for the environment. Plus, the sale of fireworks has been increasingly banned during the coronavirus pandemic. However, drone light shows of high-tech pixels displayed against the night-time sky provide an eco-friendly, non-hazardous yet spectacular alternative.

They deliver parcels, take medications from A to B, serve to survey land and inspect wind turbines. Drones have long evolved from a toy to a multi-functional tool used for a variety of commercial and vital purposes. In some cases, though, they simply provide entertainment by painting artful, pixeled figures and images against the sky as shown in the short teaser video on this page. The drone display above the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok marks a change of pace from the loud rocket shows to which we’ve become accustomed.

An art packed with technology

Drone shows are fully orchestrated spectacles in the sky. Like schools of fish, LED-illuminated flying machines move along in perfectly synchronized style, which requires perfect preparation. Before the performance, the show has to be choreographed elaborately on a computer so that each drone will know exactly what to do after it’s been deployed. Afterwards, about the only thing left for the pilot to do is to push the start button.

  • The LED-equipped quadcopters are particularly lightweight to save battery power ...
    The LED-equipped quadcopters are particularly lightweight to save battery power and to prolong the crafts’ time in the air © DroneDreams
  • Technicians from DroneDreams in Germany prepare the LED drones for a show
    Technicians from DroneDreams in Germany prepare the LED drones for a show © DroneDreams
  • Such light shows work also at indoor events such as concerts or performances of ...
    Such light shows work also at indoor events such as concerts or performances of circus acts © DroneDreams
  • Businesses like using choreographed drone shows for projecting their logos again ...
    Businesses like using choreographed drone shows for projecting their logos against the sky © EvgeniT (Pixabay)

Using a 3D animation program, the choreographer defines the various scenes of a show, from which specialized software calculates the flight path for each drone, preferably in a way that avoids collisions and ensures fast changes between formations. Very fast changes between figures, for instance, are achieved by first illuminating drone group A, followed by drone group B.

Videos deliver breath-taking images

In spring 2021, Hyundai celebrated a world record by launching its Genesis luxury brand in China. 3,281 illuminated drones painted not only the automaker’s logo but also the silhouettes of two new models against the sky above the port of Shanghai. Volkswagen, as well, launched its ID.4 in China with an impressively choreographed light show. In addition to 2,000 illuminated drones, two drones equipped with 6K cameras taking stunning pictures were deployed above Shenzhen. A large number of videos like these come from China, where choreographed shows featuring thousands of drones apparently enjoy great popularity

In September 2020, for instance, the high-tech company Shenzhen Damoda deployed a total of 3,051 drones, also setting a world record at the time, which Hyundai broke a few months later. Shanghai ushered in the year of 2020 with a fascinating work of illumination art consisting of 2,000 drones. The celebrations held on the occasion of the 2021 German Unity Day are an example from Germany. 200 drones were deployed near Giebichenstein Castle in Halle an der Saale. The show replaced the traditional closing fireworks display. Saint Petersburg hosted a spectacular light show commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in September 2020, at which 2,200 drones painted three-dimensional animations against the night-time sky.

Shanghai 2021
Shenzhen 2020
Shenzhen 2020
Shanghai 2019
Halle an der Saale (Germany)
St. Petersburg

The Zurich-based Swiss company Verity Studios develops such drone light shows for both outdoor and indoor uses. “For drones to be able to navigate autonomously, they have to know their positions in space. We have developed a positioning system for this purpose that functions in ways similar to a GPS system. Hundreds of drones can thus be coordinated simultaneously,” says Federico Augugliaro, who is responsible for live events at Verity Studios. Should a drone by chance leave its programmed flight path anyhow it will always fly back thanks to a sophisticated control system. With some quadcopters, a type of cage additionally prevents the drones from getting into each other’s way.

This combination of technology and art is fascinating. It involves a bit of magic.

Federico Augugliaro, Verity Studios AG, Zurich
No run-of-the-mill drones

Large-scale shows do not use off-the-shelf drones. On the one hand, the small flying machines should be as lightweight as possible to maximize their time spent in the air and to prevent them from posing a major hazard in case of a crash. Some of them weigh merely 50 grams (1.8 ounces), which is the same as a slice of bread. On the other hand, specialty drones with their LED lights have to carry additional “baggage.” Each of these drones must be able to shine in a wide variety of colors and levels of brightness. The light of the drone should be readily visible even from longer distances.

The advantages of drone shows over conventional fireworks displays are obvious. They’re quieter, they’re safe and they don’t emit any fine-dust particulate. The next occasions of ushing in the new year will show whether or not this “green” version of fireworks can truly replace the classic rocket spectacles.

More than 2,000 metric tons (2,200 short tons) of fine dust…

...per year are blown into the air by fireworks in Germany, accounting for around one percent of the PM10 fine-dust particulate pollution and even around two percent of the PM2.5 emissions of a whole year. 75 percent of that is emitted on a single night: New Year’s Eve. PM stands for particulate matter. PM10 indicates the diameter of the particles, which is less than ten microns. By comparison, a human hair has a diameter of 70 microns.

PM10 particles can enter the human nasal cavity, PM2.5 the bronchial tubes and even smaller, so-called ultra-fine particles may even infiltrate the lung tissue and blood stream. The impact of fine-dust particulate on human health varies, depending on the particles’ size and depth of penetrating the body. Potential consequences include inflammations of the windpipe and bronchial tubes. Particulate matter may also contribute to plaque formation in the blood vessels and increase the risk of thrombosis.

Source: German Federal Environment Agency