Drone light shows are the fireworks of the future. Here's how they work

Whale drone at the coronation of King Charles III concert
(Image credit: Getty)

On Sunday evening, 22,000 people attended Windsor Castle, and a further 18 million tuned in to watch the coronation concert in honor of King Charles III. Stars such as Katy Perry, Take That, and Lionel Richie all took to the stage alongside a 300-strong choir made of NHS staff, servicemen, and refugees. Even Kermit and Miss Piggy made an appearance. 

The event was broadcast from 11 different locations around the UK, including the Eden Project in Cornwall and Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester. At each location luminous drone displays could be seen, taking place as the night fell and the sky provided the perfect canvas. In total, more than 1,000 drones took the skies to form images; anything from bees to whales — even a watering can. Which got me thinking, how does a drone light show work?

• These are the best camera drones - perfect for taking stunning aerial photos and video

The idea of 1,000 drone pilots all coming together to choreograph the movement of drones seemed not only unlikely but also incredibly risky and easy to get wrong. Of course, that is not how drone light shows work. As you'd imagine, the drones are computer programmed to make the desired formations and pretty much any image or effect can be imitated. It’s not an easy task though.

First, a designer must come up with a storyboard for the light show and decide what visual effects to use. Using specialized software, they then need to translate the storyboard into an animated flight plan for each individual drone. These animations can be set to music so that when they take to the sky, they do it to the beat of the music. Drones are controlled by radio signals sent from the ground and, at any one time, hundreds of drones can be operated by just a single workstation and operator. 

Unlike the best DJI drones, the drones used in light shows don’t have cameras attached. It would just be extra weight. Instead, they have a bright LED light that is able to change colors and create different lighting effects, such as flashing or fading.

Drone light shows are thought to be more environmentally friendly — and certainly cause less noise and light pollution — than fireworks displays, so lots of big events, such as The Superbowl, are turning to them in favor of fireworks, or to augment them. Drones can also be reused again and again so, in the long run, they are probably more cost-effective. 

The one downside of drone light shows is they can only take place when the conditions are right. If it’s too windy or raining even slightly, the drones can’t take off. Wind makes them harder to control and unlikely to stay in formation, while water leads to outright failure. Otherwise, perhaps drone light shows will be the fireworks of the future.


How much does a drone light show cost?

According to Drone Stories, a company that specializes in drone light shows, your average drone costs around $500 and the number of drones you would need could vary from 50 to 200 or even more says Verge Aero. The location of the light show and how long it takes to plan will also affect the overall cost but if you price it at 200 drones costing $500 each that's $100K before paying for anything else so it's certainly not cheap.

Are traditional fireworks cheaper than a drone display?

The cost of a firework display is completely dependent on how long it lasts and how big it is. In the UK, a traditional 3-5 minute show will cost around £800/$1007 increasing to £10,000/$12,596 for a 20-25 minute show – careful synchronization with music can push that up even further. Similarly, the cost of a drone display comes with unique planning.

What makes a drone light environmentally friendly?

With drone light shows, there is no risk of fires, they're less disruptive for animals who are often scared by the noise fireworks make and they don't release chemicals that can pollute the soil, water, and air. They can also be used for hundreds of displays before needing replacing, hence why they are being branded 'eco-friendly fireworks'.

Why do brands and event organisers like drone displays?

You have a lot more control with drone light shows so you can create imagery relevant to a particular song, event, or brand. They also operate almost silently, so any music won't be drowned out by the noise of fireworks. For people with young families who might want to attend concerts or outdoor events, the sound of fireworks is often frightening for children and could cause distress. 

Are there any disadvantages to drone light shows?

The main one is obviously cost - you can't very easily host a drone light show in your back garden (unless you're a multi-millionaire) and you need a specialized team of people to program and fly the drones so they're not very spontaneous. Drones are also reliant on a battery which can be affected by cold temperatures, most last between 15-30 minutes so extra drones may need to be used for longer shows. 

If you're a fan of underwater photography, check out the best underwater drones and start shooting beneath the waves.

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Hannah Rooke
Staff Writer

Having studied Journalism and Public Relations at the University of the West of England Hannah developed a love for photography through a module on photojournalism. She specializes in Portrait, Fashion and lifestyle photography but has more recently branched out in the world of stylized product photography. For the last 3 years Hannah has worked at Wex Photo Video as a Senior Sales Assistant using her experience and knowledge of cameras to help people buy the equipment that is right for them. With 5 years experience working with studio lighting, Hannah has run many successful workshops teaching people how to use different lighting setups.