Your mom always warned you that those fireworks could put an eye out. However, the hottest new thing in fireworks displays is not pyrotechnic at all. Instead, a swarm of coordinated drones take to the sky with different lighting effects. This makes some pretty amazing shows possible, granting full control of direction, color, and luminosity of each light source in a mid-air display. It also has the side benefit of being safer — could this be the beginning of the end for fireworks accident videos blazing their way across social media platforms?
For an idea of what’s possible with drone swarm displays, check out the amazing pictures found on this site (machine translation) that show off the 3D effects quite well. Note that although it appears the camera is moving during many of these, the swam itself could be rotated relative to a stationary viewer for a similar effect.
What I couldn’t find was much going on here in the hobby space. Granted, in the United States, restrictive drone laws might hamper your ability to do things like this. But it seems that in a purely technical terms this wouldn’t be super hard to do — at least for simple designs. Besides, there must be some way to do this in US airspace since drone performances have been at the Super Bowl, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and Folsom, CA.
So if the regulations were sorted, what would it take to build a swarm of your own performing drones?
The Challenge of Air Traffic Control
The hardest part would be keeping the aircraft in tight formation. Depending on how tight you wanted it, GPS might be sufficient, with the option of springing for differential GPS or some other higher resolution solution. The more difficult bit is avoiding mid-air collisions. Drones take a bit of real estate to correct from unexpected velocity change and even a small bump between two could cascade like three-dimensional dominoes through the swarm. You’d need to make sure none of them were crossing the same volume of space at the same time with enough margin of error to account for position uncertainty, wind gusts, and so forth.
According to an article from earlier in the year, many companies build their own hardware and software, some specializing in outdoor GPS-based shows while other focus on indoor presentations. That article mentions the distance between drones can be between 1.5 and 3 meters. To help with safety concerns, some companies use tiny drones which also makes a lot of sense in terms of maneuverability.
I’ve have seen some control software for setting up shows. It supports many different kinds of drones, including the relatively cheap Spark. There is a GitHub with some examples of using it — it is apparently using Blender for the animation parts. Of course, there are also competitors.
So Where is the Open Source?
I’m frankly surprised at the lack of open source or DIY projects. The most obvious limitation would be cost, as even a small display will call for dozens of drones, which need to be built, stored, transported, and tested. But considering some of the huge installations build for hacker camps it’s not outside of the realm of possibility. The widespread hunger for consumer drones means a wide set of ready-made drones are both available and affordable and much has been done to reverse engineer firmware on the most ubiquitous models.
I think almost everything you need on the software side is already out there in some form. Obviously, Blender can do the animation. There are already Open Source autopilots. There was some work on something called OpenDroneControl, but it hasn’t been active for awhile.
So am I just missing it? Are there some open source tools that are at least marginally easy to use? Or is this a ripe ground for some hacking projects? Tell us in the comments if you’ve done any swarming and how you did it. Or, if you know of any tools we should be aware of, chime in with that, too.