Drone Shows: The Sky Is Not The Limit

Drones are having a moment. From Walgreens to Amazon, the retail sector is adopting them to deliver everything from medical supplies to dinner, and the entertainment industry has taken the technology and run with it. In Shanghai this spring, a video game company put on a light show which used 1,300 drones to create a QR code in the sky (see below). Watchers were able to scan the functional code with their phones and be taken to the game company’s website.   

While the technology improves all the time, currently entertainment drones carrying color-changing LEDs of 900 lumens can fly reliably from 20 to 30 minutes and can typically handle winds of up to 25 mph. Unlike fireworks, with a drone show you won’t end up with a damp squib in the rain.

Verge Aero is an American drone show company based at Pennovation at the University of Pennsylvania robotics hub. The company has created shows for its fleet of drones from Germany to Puerto Rico and all over the US, and its Skyline software platform enables lighting designers to create their own drone choreography without the need for an engineering background.

A Verge Aero event for Armed Forces Day

Live Design talked to Nils Thorjussen, CEO of Verge Aero about putting the right tools in the hands of designers and the environmental impact drones have.

Live Design: How did Verge Aero do during the pandemic?

Nils Thorjussen: Much like everyone else in the event business, the coronavirus was devastating to us. All of our bookings were cancelled and we sat dead in the water for the first few months. But things picked up in the second half of 2020. We were able to do shows for events ranging from private parties and corporate branding exercises to political campaigns. It helps that we’re doing something new and different; that gives us some nice differentiation.

LD: Greenpeace were recently criticized for putting on a drone show for the G7 meeting in Cornwall but I couldn’t find any evidence that drones create as much pollution as, for example, fireworks and some companies are actually using drones to measure pollution in the atmosphere. How green would you say entertainment drones are?

NT: I’m not sure exactly why the G7 drones were criticized as being environmentally unfriendly. As long as they’re recycled after use, I’d say drones are quite environmentally friendly relative to other entertainment technologies. They have a long lifetime and they don’t require much power. You don’t need the drones themselves to be solar powered, but it’s obviously nice if the power they use comes from renewable sources.

LD: What can we expect to see at drone shows in the future?

NT: There’s been a lot of interest in QR codes! Much like any other piece of entertainment technology, if you put the right tools in the hands of designers, amazing things will happen. We’ve only just begun to explore the possibilities!

Verge Aero drones featured in Ollie Gabriel music video

LD: Since you have been involved with so many aspects of the live entertainment industry, including founding and running companies such as Flying Pig Systems and Element Labs, how do you see the industry changing after the pandemic?  

NT: I believe that we’re in the midst of an amazing economic experiment. With events now surging back, the infrastructure to support them may not be there in full. Companies have sold off gear to stay afloat, skilled technicians have left the industry, and there are only so many dates available at certain venues. I agree that the industry will restructure, but exactly how is difficult to predict.

Verge Aero: Behind The Scenes At The Penn Covid-19 Show


Shanghai drone show from Chinese company Bilibili

Greenpeace UK video for the G&7 meeting in Cornwall.