All posts by Markus Waibel

Indoor drone shows are here

A Lucie micro drone takes off from a performer’s hand as part of a drone show. Photo: Verity Studios 2017

2017 was the year where indoor drone shows came into their own. Verity Studios’ Lucie drones alone completed more than 20,000 autonomous flights. A Synthetic Swarm of 99 Lucie micro drones started touring with Metallica (the tour is ongoing and was just announced the 5th highest grossing tour worldwide for 2017). Micro drones are now performing at Madison Square Garden as part of each New York Knicks home game — the first resident drone show in a full-scale arena setting. Since early 2017, a drone swarm has been performing weekly on a first cruise ship. And micro drones performed thousands of flights at Changi Airport Singapore as part of its 2017 Christmas show.

Technologically, indoor drone show systems are challenging. They are among the most sophisticated automation systems in existence, with dozens of autonomous robotic aircraft operating in a safety-critical environment. Indoor drone shows require sophisticated, distributed system control and communications architectures to split up and recombine sensing and computation between aircraft and their off-board infrastructure. Core challenges are not unlike those found in modern systems for manned aviation (e.g., combining auto-pilots, GPS, and air traffic control) and in creating tomorrow’s smart cities (e.g., combining semi-autonomous cars with intelligent traffic lights in a city).

These technological challenges are compounded by another: At least for permanent show installations, these systems need to be operated by non-experts. Two years ago, in one of the first major indoor drone shows, a swarm of micro drones flew over the audience at TED 2016. That system was operated by Verity Studios’ expert engineers. Creating a system that is easy enough to use, and reliable enough, to be operated by show staff is a huge technical challenge of its own. All of Verity’s 2017 shows mentioned above were fully client-operated, which speaks to the maturity that Verity’s drone show system has achieved.

Selection of Verity Studios’ indoor drone shows, from the drone swarm at TED 2016 to 20,000 autonomous indoor drone show flights in 2017 alone.

For my colleagues and me, it is these technological challenges, together with the visual impact of indoor drone shows, that makes these systems so much fun and hugely rewarding to work with.

Creative potential

Creatively, the capabilities of today’s indoor drone show systems barely scratch the surface of the technology’s potential. For centuries, show designers were restricted to static scenes. Curtains were required to hide scene changes from the audience, lest stage hands rushing to move set pieces destroy the magic created by a live show. The introduction of automation to seamlessly move backdrops and other stage elements, followed by the debut of automated lighting to smoothly pan and tilt traditional, stationary illumination were revolutionary.

Drones hold the potential for pushing automation further. The Lucies shown in the images above give a first inkling of the creative potential of flying lights that can be freely positioned in 3D space, appearing at will. Larger drones allow to extend that concept to nearly any object, including the creation of flying characters.


The most critical challenge for indoor drone show systems is safety. Indoor drone shows feature dozens of drones flying simultaneously and in tight formations, close to crowds of people, in a repeated fashion, in the high-pressure environment of a live show. For example, as part of the currently running New York Knicks drone show, 32 drones perform above 16 dancers, live in front of up to 20,000 people in New York’s Madison Square Garden arena, 44 times per season.

There are really only three ways to safely fly drones at live events.

The first way to achieve safety is the same that keeps commercial aviation safe: System redundancy. Using this approach, Verity Studios’ larger, Stage Flyer drones performed safely on Broadway, completing 398 shows and more than 7,000 autonomous flights, flying 8 times a week, in front of up to 2,000 people for a year, without safety nets. The Stage Flyer drones are designed around redundancy. At least two of each components are used (e.g., two batteries, two flight computers, and a duplicate of each sensor) or existing redundancies are exploited. For example, the Stage Flyer drones have only four propellers and motors, like any quadcopter. However, advanced algorithms that exploit the physics of flight allow these multi-rotor vehicles to fly with less than 4 propellers. The overall design allows these drones to continue to fly in spite of any individual component failure. For example, in one of the last Broadway shows, a Stage Flyer experienced a battery failure. The drone switched into its safety flight mode and landed, and the show continued with 7 instead of 8 drones. This approach to drone safety remains highly unusual — all drones available for purchase today have single points of failure.

Verity Studios drone show, 2017 Event Safety Summit, Rock Lititz. Photo: Verity Studios 2017

The second approach to safety is physical separation. This is how safety is usually achieved for outdoor drone shows: Drones perform over a body of water or some roads are temporarily closed to create a large-enough area without people. For example, the Intel drone show at the Super Bowl was recorded far away from the NRG stadium. In fact, for the Super Bowl, safety went even a step further, also adding “temporal separation” to the physical separation (the drone show was actually pre-recorded days ahead of time, and viewers in the stadium and on TV were only shown a video recording). For indoor drone lightshows, physical separation can be achieved using safety nets.

The third approach to safely flying drones at live events is to make the drones so small that they have high inherent safety. Verity Studios’ Lucie micro drones weigh less than 1.8 ounces or 50 grams (including their flexible hull).

As the continuing string of safety incidents involving drones at live events attests, not everyone takes drone safety seriously. This is why my colleagues and I have worked with aviation experts and leading creatives to summarize best practices in an overview paper: Drone shows – Creative potential and best practices.

So, what’s in store for 2018? The appetite for indoor drone shows is huge, which is why Verity Studios is growing its team. And given the 2017 track record, there is a lot to look forward to — your favorite venue’s ceiling is the limit!

Micro drones swarm above Metallica

Metallica’s European WorldWired tour, which opened to an ecstatic crowd of 15,000 in Copenhagen’s sold-out Royal Arena this Saturday, features a swarm of micro drones flying above the band. Shortly after the band breaks into their hit single “Moth Into Flame”, dozens of micro drones start emerging from the stage, forming a large rotating circle above the stage. As the music builds, more and more drones emerge and join the formation, creating increasingly complex patterns, culminating in a choreography of three interlocking rings that rotate in position.

This show’s debut marks the world’s first autonomous drone swarm performance in a major touring act. Unlike previous drone shows, this performance features indoor drones, flying above performers and right next to throngs of concert viewers in a live event setting. Flying immediately next to audiences creates a more intimate effect than outdoor drone shows. The same closeness also allows the creation of moving, three-dimensional sculptures like the ones seen in the video — an effect further enhanced by Metallica’s 360-degree stage setup, with concert viewers on all sides.

Flying drones close to and around people in such a setting is challenging. Unlike outdoors, indoor drones cannot rely on GPS signals, which are severely degraded in indoor settings and do not offer the required accuracy for autonomous drone navigation on stage. The safety aspects of flying dozens of drones close to crowds in the high-pressure, live-event environment impose further challenges. Robustness to the uncertainties caused by changing show conditions in a touring setting as well as variation in the drone systems’ components and sensors, including the hundreds of motors powering the drones, is another necessary condition for this drone show system.

“It’s all about safety and reliability first”, says Raffaello D’Andrea, founder of the company behind the drones used in the Metallica show, Verity Studios (full disclosure: I’m a co-founder). D’Andrea knows what he is talking about: In work with his previous company, which was snatched up by e-commerce giant Amazon for an eye-watering 775M USD in 2012, D’Andrea and his team created fleets of autonomous warehousing robots, moving inventory through the warehouse around the clock. That company, which has since been renamed Amazon Robotics, now operates up to 10,000 robots — in a single warehouse.

How was this achieved?

In a nutshell: Verity Studios’ drone show system is an advanced show automation system that uses distributed AI, robotics, and sophisticated algorithms to achieve the level of robust performance and safety required by the live entertainment industry. With a track record of >7,000 autonomous flights on Broadway, achieved with its larger Stage Flyer drones during 398 live shows, Verity Studios is no newcomer to this industry.

Many elements are needed to create a touring drone show; the drones themselves are just one aspect. Verity’s drones are autonomous, supervised by a human operator, who does not control drone motions individually. Instead, the operator only issues high-level commands such as “takeoff” or “land”, monitors the motions of multiple drones at a time, and reacts to anomalies. In other words, Verity’s advanced automation system takes over the role of multiple human pilots that would be required with standard, remote-controlled drones. The drones are flying mobile robots that navigate autonomously, piloting themselves, under human supervision. The autonomous drones’ motions and their lighting design are choreographed by Verity’s creative staff.

To navigate autonomously, drones require a reliable method for determining their position in space. As mentioned above, while drones can use GPS for their autonomous navigation in an outdoor setting, GPS is not a viable option indoors: GPS signals degrade close to large structures (e.g., tall buildings) and are usually not available, or severely degraded, in indoor environments. Since degraded GPS may result in unreliable or unsafe conditions for autonomous flight, the Verity drones use proprietary indoor localization technology.

System architecture of Verity Studios’ drone show system used in Metallica’s WorldWired tour, comprising positioning modules part of Verity’s indoor localization technology, autonomous drones, and an operator control station.

It is the combination of a reliable indoor positioning system with intelligent autonomous drones and a suitable operator interface that allows the single operator of the Metallica show to simultaneously control the coordinated movement of many drones. This pilot-less approach is not merely a matter of increasing efficiency and effectiveness (who wants to have dozens of pilots on staff), but also a key safety requirement: Pilot errors have been an important contributing factor in dozens of documented drone accidents at live events. Safety risks rapidly increase as the number of drones increases, resulting in more complex flight plans and higher risks of mid-air collisions. Autonomous control allows safer operation of multiple drones than remote control by human pilots, especially when operating in a reduced airspace envelope.

Verity’s system also had to be engineered for safety in spite of other potential failures, including wireless interference, hardware or software component failures, power outages, or malicious disruption/hacking attacks. In its 398-show run on Broadway, the biggest challenge to safety turned out to be another factor: Human error. While operated by theater staff on Broadway, Verity’s system correctly identified human errors on five occasions and prevented the concerned drones from taking flight (on these occasions, the show continued with six or seven instead of the show’s planned eight drones; only one show proceeded without any drones as a safety precaution, i.e., the drone show’s “uptime” was 99.7%). As my colleagues and I have outlined in a recently published overview document on best practices for drone shows, when using drones at live event safety is a hard requirement.

Another key element for Verity’s show creation process are drone authoring tools. Planning shows like the Metallica performance requires tools for the efficient creation of trajectories for large numbers of drones. The trajectories must account for the drones’ actual flight dynamics, considering actuator limitations, as well as for aerodynamic effects, such as air turbulence or lift. Drone motions generated by these tools need to be collision-free and allow for emergency maneuvers. To create compelling effects, drone authoring tools also need to allow extracting all of the dynamic performance the drones are capable of — another area that D’Andrea’s team has gained considerable experience with prior to founding Verity Studios, in this case as part of research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’s Flying Machine Arena.

Creating a compelling drone show requires more than the drone show system itself. For this tour, Verity Studios partnered with the world’s leading stage automation company TAIT Towers to integrate the drones into the stage floor as well as tackling a series of other technical challenges related to this touring show.

While technology is the key enabler, the starting point and the key driver of Verity’s shows are non-technological. Instead, the show is driven by the show designers’ creative intent. This comprises defining the role of show drones for the performance at hand as well as determining their integration into the visual and musical motifs of the show’s creative concept. For Metallica, the drones’ flight trajectories and lighting were created by Verity’s choreography team, incorporating feedback from Metallica’s production team and the band.

Metallica’s WorldWired tour
Metallica’s WorldWired Tour is their first worldwide tour after the World Magnetic Tour six years ago. The tour’s currently published European leg runs until 11 May 2018, with all general tickets sold out.

Further Robohub reading

Some images for your viewing pleasure

James Hetfield with Verity’s drones
Verity’s drones swarming below TAIT’s LED cubes
A glimpse at the 15,000-strong audience of the sold-out concert