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Image from the 2023 International Drone Show Competition in Las Vegas, from Sky Elements Drone Shows and SPH Engineering.

When Droning on Is Really Entertaining

Coordinated drone shows are making an impact at business events. Here’s what you need to know about planning them.

For at least one night in early December, the city that has a $2.3 billion technological marvel known as The Sphere saw many of its visitors and residents train their focus a bit further north, to the sky behind the Las Vegas Convention Center, for a series of unique aerial presentations.

In conjunction with LDI 2023, a major conference and trade show for the live-entertainment industry, the fourth International Drone Show competition took place with four finalists showing off their technological and creative abilities across eight categories. (Watch some of the winners’ presentations here.)

In fact, a few of the categories dovetail nicely with the objectives of corporate and association event planners: “best drone-show storytelling” and “best drone show as a marketing tool.”

Nate Mortensen, CEO of Open Sky Productions, says that more organizations are seeing the value of using drone shows for both entertainment and business goals. “We’re doing a lot of shows as part of a kickoff or closing event” for industry conventions and trade shows as well as employee-recognition and customer events for companies.

Screen Shot 2023-12-12 at 2.26.36 PM.pngUsing fleets ranging from 50 to 400 aerial units, drone-show companies work with business-event planners anywhere from eight to 16 weeks out to develop a script for the flow of aerial images—they can be two-dimensional or three-dimensional—with music that complements those images. “The main question we work from with clients is this: With a 10-minute opportunity to tell a story, what can we do that will get your particular audience to have strong emotions and remember as much as possible?”

Logistical Considerations
Because the Federal Aviation Administration oversees the use of all drones other than small single units flown for personal use, that agency must grant approval to an event host who wants to conduct a drone show. First, the permitted altitude is generally 400 to 500 feet above ground level; sometimes, though, the height can extend to 400 feet above the tallest nearby building, depending on how far the event is from an airport.

Also, “the FAA does not allow us to fly over people or traffic,” Mortensen notes. However, flying over a field or forest that’s temporarily closed off to people—or even a hotel parking lot that might or might not have cars in it—is permitted. “As long as you can keep people from accessing their cars during the show, we can do that,” Mortensen says.

Naturally, weather conditions are a consideration. Drone-show companies will track the destination’s weather a few days ahead of a presentation. “If the cloud ceiling will be less than 1,000 feet, or visibility will be under three miles, or the wind will be too strong, we need to go to plan B,” Mortensen says. That could mean doing it a few hours earlier or later, or a day earlier or later; “we ask clients to keep an alternate slot open in their event schedule.” The good news: “Over the past two years, we’ve cancelled fewer than five shows because of weather.”

As for doing a drone show inside a convention center’s exhibit hall, that’s not advisable. “There are indoor-specific units,” he notes. “But all drones fly on GPS signals, and there is often interference with those signals when indoors.”

Creative Ideas, Cost, and ROI
With 50 to 100 drones, event hosts can create various geometric shapes, basic brand logos, or perhaps two or three short words at any one time. Mortensen recommends that business groups use at least 150 drones because “they usually want to display logos and custom animations in 3D along with recognition and other messages, and at that number you’re getting enough resolution to make a strong impression.”

In general, the cost for a drone show is $200 per unit, which would make a 10-minute, 150-drone show an investment of roughly $30,000. While that is more expensive than many fireworks shows of the same length, the return on investment can be greater.

“I would say that at least half the audience has their phones out to record part of a show, and it gets posted across social media,” says Mortensen. Even for smaller corporate groups, “a drone show is a public event that gets a lot of unsuspecting viewers. People will even pull off to the side of the road if they see a drone show and record it. Doing it as part of a brand kickoff or product launch can be pretty effective."

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