How designers are “animating the sky” with drones

A series of recent high-profile events have featured futuristic drones shows – but as these designers tell us, a good production needs more than just tech to tell a story.

As the UK rang in the new year 2021, a 100-metre tall pensioner, followed by a giant turtle, lit up the London skyline.

It was the work of some 300 drones flying in London’s first-ever large-scale drone show and had been created and filmed a couple of nights before.

The Mayor of London’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration is just one of an increasing number of high-profile shows in which drone displays have played a role. In the past decade, the technology has emerged from relative obscurity and come to entertain huge stadium crowds, eminent politicians, and even the British Royal family.

It’s a medium that is necessarily driven by tech. But putting together an impressive drone show also requires creativity and the ability to tell a compelling story.

Photo: Jack Morton & Kois Miah

“Being able to say something meaningful”

“The sky is the biggest canvas there is,” says SKYMAGIC creative director Patrick O’Mahony. “But for us, animating it requires being able to say something meaningful, and doing so with artistic integrity.”

SKYMAGIC was the creative team behind the drone spectacle over London on New Year’s Eve. Beyond the giant turtle and depiction of Captain Sir Tom Moore, which was accompanied by a voiceover from David Attenborough calling for action on climate change, the 10-minute show also covered numerous other headline-grabbing events from the tumultuous year just gone. These included a huge nightingale bird to symbolise the emergency hospitals built to cope with the pandemic and a tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement.

A 300-strong fleet of drones above the capital is long way from where SKYMAGIC began – both figuratively and geographically, O’Mahony tells Design Week.

“Our first show in 2015 was against the spectacular backdrop of Mount Fuji in Japan, but was essentially us optimistically flying 30 drones in a swarm,” he says.

“We try and move people away from two-dimensional thinking”

New Year’s Eve’s performance was about storytelling, O’Mahony says. Drone technology shouldn’t be used “for the sake of it”, he adds, but there’s no denying the novelty of the technology makes that tempting.

O’Mahony’s remit at creative director at SKYMAGIC often involves trying to encourage client’s briefs to go beyond their initial idea. He says most of us have a tendency to see the sky as a flat canvas, so getting people to think in three dimensions is important. Doing so means a show can be viewed from multiple different viewpoints and still make sense.

“We still do a lot of flat imagery in the sky, like company logos for example,” he says. “But we try and move people away from two-dimensional thinking where we can.” The nightingale bird from New Year’s Eve is a good example of this.

Thinking in three dimensions, the sky is the limit. Gábor Vásárhelyi, CEO of drone research company CollMot Robotics and its drone show offshoot CollMot Entertainment, explains some of his shows have also included aerial projections and holograms alongside its drone fleets.

Another, he explains, used dancers on the ground connected with sensors to produce the world’s first outdoor show that combined with real-time interactivity between people and drones.

“The technological advancements actually help us to showcase our artistic expression better,” says Vásárhelyi, adding that CollMot often works with artists too to translate their ideas into drone spectacles.

Photo: Jack Morton & Kois Miah

“It can’t just be image, image, image”

Big ideas are one thing – actually realising them is another. O’Mahony explains two-dimensional graphics are stacked diagonally in the sky “to get the flattest shape possible”, in a way similar to how graphics are distorted on football pitches.

Thinking in three dimensions, however, makes designing the shows harder. Images created by the drones can’t just be stacked one after each other and time is needed to get each drone from point A to B. As Vásárhelyi explains: “most of our work is about logistics”.

“You can’t think of just the one drone, you need to have that swarm mentality yourself,” he says.

Meanwhile O’Mahony says: “It can’t just be image, image, image and reassembly is a big thing – each drone could have anywhere up to 400 metres to travel to get to its next mark.”

Like any design, work begins with “scribbles on paper”, O’Mahony says. Those scribbles eventually get inputted into a computer software that helps a team visualise the show. Vásárhelyi tells Design Week that CollMot has developed its own software to this end.

“We incorporated all the knowledge we have gathered from our decade of research into drone and swarms into the programme,” he says. The software, called Skybrush, has several different functions: the “studio” platform is for designing shows, while the “viewer” is for previewing and “live” is for executing the shows”.


“The more drones you work with, the safer they need to be”

The nature of drone shows – and the fact they’re usually held over populous areas – means there’s usually a lot of red tape involved in any production. Permits and exemptions specific to each city and country are big part of this.

“Often as we’re preparing for a show, it can feel like we’re worried parents hoping some of our naughtier drones don’t play up in front of people,” O’Mahony says, explaining it can feel like the devices have a personality of their own sometimes.

But a lot more than wishful thinking goes into making sure drones “behave”. Avoidance – that is, making sure drones don’t crash into each other – is a key part of the safety process.

“The more drones you work with, the safer they need to be,” says Vásárhelyi. “Even if only one per cent of your drones fail, when you’re working with hundreds of drones for a show, that’s a big problem.”

Automation deals with these issues so designers and show producers don’t have to, meaning drone shows are usually safer than other public displays like fireworks which can depend on more variables. Indeed, Vásárhelyi says the fact drones produce no smoke, environmental damage or noise, means more and more are looking to them as an alternative to fireworks.

“Drone shows for the sake of it would end up lessening their effect”

With drones becoming more prominent in live events, will more designers be enticed to work with the technology on their projects? Perhaps with the right story to tell, designer Kate Dawkins feels.

Dawkins’ eponymous studio has been involved in the design of a hefty list of live shows, including the London 2012 Olympic Ceremonies and numerous events for brands and cultural institutions.

She says there’s no doubt as to why drones are increasing in popularity: “They’re visually dynamic, and there’s an undeniable ‘wow’ moment.” That said, having worked with all kinds of technology over the years, she says it will be important for designers to use drones “appropriately”.

“The shapes and images drones can create is of course amazing, but my question for any technology is how much further can it be pushed,” she says. “Having drone shows for the sake of it would end up lessening their effect, I think.”

Instead, Dawkins says she thinks drone displays would be best when used as part of a wider spectacle – in the same way SKYMAGIC’s New Year’s Eve show used music, voiceovers, lighting and fireworks alongside its drone display.


“Goose-bump territory”

In any case, Dawkins says there is scope to evolve and this is a thought shared by O’Mahony.

“As drones get more powerful and smaller, the fairly low-resolution images we’re able to put in the sky are only going to get more detailed,” he says.

“Being able to tell stories in the sky is real goose-bump territory stuff, and I don’t think the skies are going to get any less busy anytime soon.”

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