The Super Bowl is typically one of the most highly viewed sporting events of the year and Super Bowl LI was no different. Millions of North Americans tuned in last weekend to watch as the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons went head to head on the gridiron for football glory. But even with great hits, incredible passes, a legendary catch, and Lady Gaga, there was something else stirring a buzz around the halftime show: drones.
Whether this Super Bowl spectacle was pre-recorded or not, you or your clients may have the urge to call FMAV to book a drone light show for your next sales conference or music festival, there are a few important considerations to take which may severely limit or completely inhibit you from achieving your airborne event goals.
First and foremost UAV’s (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) can be fun but they can also be dangerous. The propulsion system is the most obvious safety concern with the ability to generate enough downward thrust to lift a person! But this thrust means that the composite plastic propellers, or even worse, carbon fibre propellers are often rotating at tens of thousands of rotations per minute (RPM) which is the equivalent to a flying lawn mower! Danger!
Lithium polymer (Li-Po) batteries are at the heart of all UAV’s today and these heavy compact power plants store a lot of potential energy - in the result of a collision or accident a damaged or punctured battery can burst into flames in an explosion that can be near impossible to extinguish.
Failures can happen frequently with UAVs. In essence these aircraft are made of mostly frail aluminum and composite materials which are susceptible to wear, tear and damage. Not to mention the electrical and navigational errors and malfunctions are also possible. Joel Reodica, FMAV’s own Certified UAV operator says "When a drone experiences a failure during flight, the result is not as simple as it falling and dropping out of the sky. More than likely the aircraft will spin out of control or go careening off on a wild tangent. The notion that onlookers are safe as long as they avoid standing beneath the UAV is wrong."
Aside from the move obvious dangers, in Canada the agency who regulates all airspace is Transport Canada and Canadian Aviation Regulations state that commercial operations cannot be conducted laterally within 100’ of people, homes or buildings nor 300’ AGL (above ground level). As described above a 100’ radius will not serve any good in depending on the failure conditions.
FMAV would exercise a much greater safety radius at 500’ similar to the large safety zone that Intel uses at Walt Disney light shows.
The U.S. also has UAV regulations instituted by the TSA who have similar rules but slightly more relaxed than Canada. Indoor events in the US are not regulated and the TSA does not care when drones are operated during indoor events. However Transport Canada still regulates UAV operations indoors, though less so, despite most indoor spaces not impeding any other type of commercial air traffic.
Flying a UAV overhead during an event with several audience members is not recommended as the risk and potential for failure is also high. Radio interference is imminent as most conference centers and hotels use the same radio frequencies for their WiFi infrastructure.
Doing a choreographed indoor drone show would also require some other way to track each UAVs exact position in space. The lack of any GPS signals indoors prevents most smart UAVs from knowing its relative location in space and to other UAVs to avoid mid-air collision.
Current li-po battery technology is limited typically to a maximum flight time of 15 to 20 minutes. Meaning the light show can only last for a limited time. Until advances in battery technology allowing for lighter and higher capacity power plants, UAV flight times will only be able to last a few moments.
The other option would be to tether the UAV to the ground and supply power remotely, although this would restrict the ability to fly freely. Perhaps a 2nd fleet of drones would take off once the 1st fleet nears the end of its battery life. This would likely double the complexity of the choreography and of course, the cost.
Assuming all technical and safety precautions are met, aeronautical weather charts are the next important aspect that needs to be considered. Unexpected high winds from approaching weather systems and sudden temperature drops at can lead to a very high risk scenario where UAV operations should be ceased completely. Li-po batteries lose battery strength in very cold temperatures which may lead to much shorter than normal flight times.
FMAV operates UAV’s commercially, however because of the safety implications we do not, or at least have yet to operate any UAV directly at or during an event where groups of people are present. We strongly advocate UAV safety especially with regards to live events. We witness and hear of many live events where promoters or planners launch their drones to capture promotional footage of the concert/festival/marathon/etc - which is commercial use. FMAV does not condone this practice and believe it is not in the best interest and safety of the attendees, our clients, and our own staff.
After all of these considerations, if you still are determined to host your very own drone light show you should ensure that you reach out only to commercial operators like FMAV, who hold a valid SFOC with Transport Canada (Special Flight Operation Certificate) which ensures that your UAV operation is executed in a responsible, safe and transparent manner with ample flight preparation and planning in advance. Your show will go off without a hitch and be cooler than the fake Super Bowl halftime show!