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Drone Light Show Added to Night Performance Lineup

By Barbara A. Schmitz

July 24, 2018 - These days drones are used to deliver pizza and packages, and aid in search and rescue operations. And at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2018, they’ll be used to entertain.

Sixty drones will take part in the night air show, said Matt Quinn, flight director for Great Lakes Drone Co., and those drones will take up a big part of the sky — about 50-200 feet in the air, and about a football field across.

The FAA approved Great Lakes Drone Co. to conduct drone light shows in March 2017. Since then, their shows have slowly been getting bigger and better, Quinn said. “We’re constantly working on improving the technology; there is no cookbook formula on how to do a drone light show, so we’re innovating and trying to figure it out ourselves.”

How much time goes into creating such a show? “Lots,” Quinn said. To do the choreographing, they hire consultants to help tell the story each client wants to tell. AirVenture’s story is about the history of flight, patriotism, and the abstract, all wrapped into one. Shows with 100 drones can easily take two months to program, he said.

From there, they create a wire frame and do a video simulation of what the show will look like. On top of that, they also need to coordinate their show with the client and the FAA.

Quinn said they try to do as much work as possible in advance. So that means days before, they are setting up their grid and spray painting it on the ground, and doing all their compass calibrations and communications checks. “There are a lot of logistics and timing we have to work through, like where the B-1 will be taking off. We can’t set up until it’s gone, or otherwise, he’ll just blow us away,” Quinn said.

Katie Gilmore, a drone pilot and Great Lakes regulatory and logistics director, said the EAA show has been more challenging than usual since they have to coordinate the crew from multiple locations. “But we’ve brought in the best-of-the-best (drone) pilots … they are all top-notch pilots who are also familiar with general aviation,” she said.

Eleven staff people are working AirVenture. “There are a lot of things to watch and monitor,” Quinn said. “For instance, suppose the drones take off and suddenly birds start coming toward the flight path. We have to step in and do something.”

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