Piloting and avoiding pitfalls

Getting ready for a live performance

Performing with a drone, or any other project that involves participants other than the pilot and assistant, requires the same safety checks and preparations as simple flights, with a host of other considerations due to the proximity of people and the nature of live performance. Consider all the legal implications of your project, seeking permissions and licenses as necessary. Make sure, too, that you’ve looked into all aspects of health and safety with the venue, have your risk assessment, safety checks and backup plans in place, and have a plan to obtain consent from all participants.

Adding components

If you’re going to add components to the drone as part of the show, add them as close to the center of the drone as possible, and as symmetrically as possible. It is always better to add mass to the bottom of the drone, as adding mass to the top will make the system more unstable. Be sure to run several tests with all components before attempting any kind of performance.

Tips on use of drones for special effects and lighting

One increasingly popular use of drones is for dramatic lighting. While appearing simple, this application is not without challenges.

Always keep in mind that unless the lighting is to be static, you will need computing power onboard the drone and additional wireless communication between this solution and your master show control, in order to directly control the lighting or start /stop a pre-programmed lighting sequence. You will most likely have to add these components.

However, the two most important considerations for any additional feature added to a drone are weight and power consumption. Either a separate battery can be added to power the lighting and its required electronics, or the power can be drawn directly from the drone’s battery. The former option adds a significant amount of weight, while the later could significantly reduce the flight time depending on the brightness of the lighting, the amount of computing power, and the wireless communication range required.

Generally, LEDs are decently low power compared to other lighting options and don’t add much mass, but the single point light can be unattractive. This can be solved with some sort of diffuser, but at a cost of adding more weight. Additionally, the drone has a finite amount of surface area on which to mount components, and a diffuser will require much of this space.


LED long-exposure light painting made with a drone, by production studio Fiction

Battery Life and Flight Planning

If the event is outside, keep in mind that wind may affect the battery life of the drone if it has to work harder to hold position. Run several tests in different conditions and be ready to cancel or postpone the event if the weather is inclement. Practice your flight path several times at the venue and know where and when you will take off and land. Make sure there are no obstacles or obstructions that would keep you from seeing the UAV at all times.

If your project involves more than one piloted drone, make sure that the intended flight paths allow enough room between drones so that no bumps or collisions take place.  Plan for gusts of wind or other factors such as turbulence, which can be created by one drone experienced by another. This is especially notable when one drone flies above another.

The manoeuvrability and capability of your drone is dependent on the model, setup and components, but by becoming familiar with the physics behind drone movement, you will gain a sense of what’s possible, and which effects are easy or difficult to achieve.  Raffaello D’Andrea’s TED video gives a good overview of the principles of flight, and the dynamics of roll, pitch and yaw.


Next page in toolkit: Legal matters and obtaining consent