Drone technology has made considerable advances since the last Mediatech Africa in 2017. According to Mediatech trade show director, Simon Robinson, drone technology is a powerful tool for many sectors of the economy but it’s undeniably disrupting and drastically altering the events, media, and film-making industries. “Unmanned aerial geniuses – drones ignite the imaginations of people and industries the world over – and till now we have only just begun to scratch the surface of their potential,” says Robinson.
“From toys for adults to drones able to land on water and film underwater, to solar battery technology that’s allowing high-altitude drones to fly for weeks at a time without landing – drone technology is leaping frogging what was ever imagined possible.”
When it comes to events, drones have already had an impact on event surveillance and on film and photography, but Disney has gone a step further and is putting drones to work on entertainment. The company has filed for several drone patents – all focused on entertainment. It’s also been reported that synchronised lights shows, floating projection screens, and drone puppeteers have all been considered by the entertainment giant.
Globally, drones have been used for lighting shows for some time. Most recently, hundreds of drones were used in a display that marked the coronation ceremony for Thailand’s new King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The drones were used to spell out “Long Live the King,” as well forming various shapes in the air, including a picture of the new king and a map of Thailand. The Thai number 10, which represented the sovereign as the 10th king of the Chakri dynasty was also included.
Record Breaking Displays
The 2018 Winter Olympic Games’ light show featured a record-breaking 1 218 unmanned aerial vehicles that were airborne simultaneously; 330g Intel Shooting Star drones designed specifically for light shows. The Shooting Star drones feature built-in LED lights that can create more than four billion colour combinations in the sky and the UAVs painted the sky with colourful illustrations, including a snowboarder and the Olympic rings. Like the drones that flew at Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime show (2017) the drone flight wasn’t live – it was pre-recorded.
The added number of drones used increased the resolution and quality of the images and all the drones for this, and other similar shows, are controlled by one computer and one drone pilot. Advances in software and animation interfaces allow a light show like the opening ceremony to be created in days or weeks depending on the animation complexity. The animation creation process is automated by using a reference image that calculates the number of drones needed and where the drones should be placed. The fastest path to create the image in the sky is then formulated.
Chinese drone-based aerial landscaping media technology company EHang Egret went on to break this world record when a 1 374 3D drone fleet danced over the City Wall of Xi’an. During the 13 minute light show, the drones created a huge sky curtain 1 200m long, 100m wide and 260m high above the city wall. According to EHang Egret, its intelligent drone formation command cloud system enables independent planning, real-time monitoring, and smart dispatching of the UAVs flight task and light effects. This is said to be superior to traditional manual control by drone pilots.
Commenting on the use of more and more drones in lighting shows, Robinson says that using additional drones provides a broader canvas, but more importantly, creates more depth. “Animators compose the show using 3-D design software, after which each individual drone gets assigned to act as an aerial pixel, filling in the 3-D image against the night sky. With advances in the technology, you can create really interesting effects and transformations.”
Adding to this he says drones operate independently, communicating with a central computer and prior to take off, that computer will determine which drone plays what role, based on the battery levels and GPS strength of each member of the fleet. “Given the limitations of current lithium-ion battery technology, as a rule, drones fly for a little under 20 minutes. Add to this the fact that because they normally launch at a distance from the performance area, show time is reduced further yet.”
Robinson adds that synchronised programmable drones are entertaining, and deliver an impressive result like that of fireworks, but they’re easier to control, allow for more elaborate effects, and they are reusable making them an increasingly popular technology for events.
Locally drone light shows are less common as South Africa has such stringent drone regulations. Despite this, although there’s speculation around how the approvals were garnered, a major bank used drones to celebrate the relaunch of the group and its new name with the continent’s first live drone light show in Johannesburg. According to the bank’s marketing director, the spectacle was intended to highlight the new strategic direction of the bank which is to be a digitally led business using tech to bring to life its purpose.
Commenting on the growth of drone technology in South Africa since Mediatech in 2017, Timeslice director, Jono O’Connell says, “The past two years have been significant and markedly good for the drone industry both locally and internationally, with several drone technologies disrupting the drone market and much technological advancement achieved. We are now at a point where drones are faster, safer and easier to use – and far smarter.”
Game of Drones
As drone technology evolves at blinding speed, it’s clear that the approach to film production is fundamentally modifying.
In the production of films like Game of Thrones (GOT) – many bird’s eye view shots appeared in the series thanks to drones. The Battle of Meirin and the approach of the Stannis Baratheon fleet to the Royal Harbor were filmed using drones. In season 7, FlyCam, which provided mini-helicopter drones, was used for filming. This is useful technology because the camera can be carried over terrain at high speed with good image stabilisation (simulating, for example, the flight of a dragon).
“With the cost reduction of drones, and the advances in technology, opportunities, accessibility and capabilities have been greatly enhanced. Very little capital outlay is needed to buy into the world of drones, so whether you’re in the film industry, or just a home movie maker, drones are now widely accessible. An aspiring music video producer, or budding film maker, can purchase a drone for between R8 000 to R10 000 and shoot great quality beautiful 4k videos – easily, smoothly and cost effectively. This has paved the way for a wave of film makers to start living their dreams,” says O’Connell. “If you compare drones to conventional helicopters or other large format aerial filming of days gone by, shooting with a drone is a far cheaper way of capturing aerial shots and getting a bird’s eye view. The ability has been put into the hands of many to shoot beautiful content with hardly any cost.”
As with many accelerating technologies, it’s hard to say what the future holds for drone tech and O’Connell says that five years in this industry is an absolute lifetime if not two. “In general it’s safe to predict that the mainstream use and demand for drones will continue to rise and seeing UAVs in the sky will become more common place.
“As for specific projections, I believe range will be the next big thing to dominate the drone world: BVLOS – Beyond Visual Line of Sight. This speaks to the ability of drones to be flown at great distances from the operator and to fly accurately. We already have the technology now where directors, DOPs and creatives with no training can wear goggles and move the camera around by simply moving their head or arms by holding a handle bar. This means a significant barrier has been lifted for creatives with no training, to point and shoot the camera.”
Adding to this O’Connell says that a big issue to work on over the next five years is endurance – flight time. “Drones require an enormous amount of energy to stay airborne which means heavy batteries must power the drone which counteracts their own endurance. In principle, most drones use half their power to carry the very batteries that power them. Fundamentally we need a device or system that makes the aircraft more efficient in the air – better battery technology and even solar power or renewable energy would work. Now that would make for great progress in the drone sector.
“I don’t think it’s unrealistic to consider that soon, a director will be able to operate a drone from a completely different city, and be able to control it automatically without even laying eyes on the bird,” concludes O’Connell.
Mediatech Africa is on between 17 – 19 July – register before the 12 July closing date to avoid paying the R100 entrance fee. A hugely popular addition to the show – drones will again be a big feature at the show this year.