An Inside Look at the Assembly 2023 Drone Show
Recently NMR undertook the project for Assembly Studios in Atlanta, and we brought to life a vivid experience to help introduce Gray Communications’ newest venture in the film and television world. The scope of the show was grand, and we were able to provide an immersive experience in the sound stage, a large festival-style production for the main stage, and an exterior party scene that covered a large area between multiple sound stages. One of the key elements to help close the night out was provided by Sky Elements Drone Shows. The show featured 300 drones that flew just above the “Pond” next to the mainstage, and the drone show ran just after midnight. Sky Elements provided many unique and stunning visuals, including company logos for Assembly Studios, a locomotive with moving wheels (we were in Georgia after midnight), an American flag, a giant peach, and a nice “ATL” and “Georgia” over the city. For many of us it was a first chance to see a live drone show, and it became a wonderful way to close the evening.
After the show I caught up with KC Sealock, pilot and crew lead with Sky Elements, and I got an insider look at how the software manages the drones and how the drones know what to do when they take off and land. I found it pretty fascinating and decided to reach out to KC for our newsletter and pick his brain about how they handle production work and their incredibly busy schedule.
Q: I’ve been following your work for years on social media – in the early boom for drone production, you ran your own company out of Jacksonville, FL building custom drones. What did you see in the potential of drone production early on that would give way to the popularity of drone shows today?
A: The leaps and bounds in consumer drone technology over the past decade have been INCREDIBLE... from cobbled-together frames that barely fly, to the precision light show units you saw in the ATL show... A whole community of us makers who have expanded everything from micro-class toys to precision racing drones and heavy-lift commercial drones, the expansion and explosion has been amazing to watch. The community has been running in overtime, improving on everything from efficiency to speed to accuracy in flight. Even with the pre-programmed flight paths we were messing around with years ago, I can honestly say that I never really saw THIS as a logical end, but looking back it definitely makes sense! Having been part of many factions of the industry, this is absolutely the most flashy!
Q: I know parts of your background include being a military kid and travelling all over the world. Being so closely involved with the military from an early age and having your dad and brother both active-duty, did you find working with drones checked a box for you personally after seeing so much military technology throughout your life?
A: With recent events in the world, there has definitely been a blurring of the line between military and civilian drone hardware, but I think there’s still a pretty solid difference. I think there probably WAS a pretty solid influence in that my father flew helicopters in the military, and I’ve always been obsessed with rotorcraft. SO much cooler than fixed wing!
Q: Many of us watching your production in Atlanta would view the drones as 300 individual pixels, just as we would an LED screen. When you joined Sky Elements Drone Shows, how did you shift your mindset in terms of approaching how you work with many drones at once, and all of the drones being essentially an RGB color-mixing machine?
A: That’s honestly a perfect way to look at them! While the show itself is pretty much a single unit, I still have to look at the whole swarm as individual aircraft. Pre-show preparations include inspections of every aircraft right down to each individual propeller to make sure that everything is on point and ready to fly. Once the swarm is up and running, I’m still splitting my attention between the show as a whole, and the overall performance of each aircraft, monitoring battery life, vibrations onboard the aircraft, radio signals, GPS settings and a whole host of other data. In the end, as all these individual things come together, we end up with a great show like the one at Assembly!
Q: Speaking of pixels, how dialed-in would you say your process is for mapping graphics in the sky? Do you ever create a drone show, then while testing you see the need to either punt and start over completely, or at minimum make adjustments to tighten up or spread the drones out to make the pixels more visible from the ground?
A: To be honest, most shows are developed completely in cyberspace, and quite often the first real flight is the night of the show. The design and testing software is detailed right down to the physics, and spacing, so as long as everything works properly there, it would only be an environmental factor the night of the flight that would really have any negative impact. To that end, the pilots are reviewing the site survey provided them, walking the site and monitoring the weather days before each show.
Q: You sent me a great photo of your drone test in Texas for this show. I’m assuming you have to get FAA clearance for every drone test you do. Are you on a first-name basis with the FAA in Corpus Christi?
A: Every flight we do has to either fall within the waiver we’ve been granted, or in some cases additional authorization is needed, say for restricted airspace. We have actually developed relationships with FAA offices all over the country where we fly! To take it a step further, I’m actually the FAA Safety Team Drone Pro for the San Antonio district office, so yeah, those guys know who I am!
Q: When you arrived on site with your team, I noted that all of your drones were set out in a relatively small area behind the main wall at the pond. I found it impressive that you made such a tight space work. You mentioned trees and power lines being a factor when finding the right location for launching each show. What would you say is the most extreme location you and your team have launched a drone show from?
A: A perfect show often means finding JUST the right spot, however, a nice wide open field in the middle of nowhere away from all sorts of hazards and interference isn’t where people want to SEE a drone show! Trying to get shows to more eyeballs is always the mission, and we do everything we can to stay within our safety guidelines while pushing those boundaries to make it happen. That spot was definitely one of the tightest takeoff/landing zones we’ve used, but we’ve flown from piers, parking garages (do not recommend), and even a jetty on a sea wall to name a few! Getting the show in the air while maximizing safety for the crowd and the aircraft is quite the challenge.
Q: You recently produced a drone show in American Samoa. When you have travelled that far from home base, do you approach prepping your equipment any differently, knowing that there might not be any chance of making a supply run to the store?
A: For the show in American Samoa pilots drew straws for that LONG flight just to get to the show! We’re actually very self-sufficient, and honestly I can’t think of the last time we had to get anything in addition to our normal packout kit to make a show work. It’s a process that we’ve been dialing in over the last couple years, and it’s been working really well! That being said, with a show like that, it’s more about the shipping of the equipment and especially the batteries that can be the biggest challenge.
Q: You’ve operated large-scale productions for major events such as the Grammys and halftime shows for universities like Purdue and USC. What is the legal ruling for drones regarding flight over people and large crowds?
A: The simple answer is: Don’t, and Don’t. While recent regulations have allowed for very limited and very specific flights over people, it requires specialized aircraft to do so. Currently, our standard light show drones don’t meet those requirements, but we are doing some work back in the lab for future events. OOP (operations over people) is still quite a hot button topic in the drone world, and things haven’t quite shaken out yet.
Q: You were gracious enough to show me the software for the drones, and how they interacted with the topographical map of the area. I found that part of the production incredibly fascinating. So would one of our leads, Jason Skoloda. He was really excited to see the drone show as well. I really liked the notion of having the spreadsheet of all the drones available, and having the ability to highlight a single drone out of the list for troubleshooting. Do you ever reach a point with the software where you hit your limit for the number of drones it will track?
A: The largest show that we’ve flown so far was 1500, and that wasn’t enough to crash the software! Definitely a TON of data to sift through during flight, and knowing how to sort and monitor everything definitely takes some getting used to in order to be efficient at it. We’ve got some bigger projects coming up, if we hit that number I’ll be sure to let you know!
Q: When I watched the night’s recording of the single drone taking footage through the active drone show, I had many, many questions. As far as video footage, it was incredibly smooth and crisp. As far as logistics, how does somebody control a single drone in a flurry of moving drones to take a video like that?
A: Ahhhh, everyone loves the FPV (first person view) footage! We have made that kind of our calling card in recording these shows, and you’ll see it in the majority of our social media. High powered racing drones, with skilled pilots who have done several walkthroughs of the show in pre-viz is the way to make it happen. Similar to the drone racing through gates, it’s all about picking the best spots to go through the fleet, timing it out so you don’t get stuck in a transition between animations, and using the increasingly amazing action cameras that keep getting released to the market for the footage!
Q: Sky Elements has the distinction of owning many viral videos online. I really enjoyed the work with the Halloween show that paid homage to Stranger Things. You’ve produced everything from Darth Maul to Tie Fighters to Super Mario to Rickrolling the city of Austin. What shows particularly stand out to you as the most challenging?
A: That would be a question for our animators for sure, they’re the ones with the real magic that coordinate the flight from start to finish. In field operations, I have the somewhat simpler task of making sure everything goes together to make their vision actually get in the air! I’m pretty sure those folks are magic, not only from the volume of work they put out, but the innovations they work into each show, finding a couple extra seconds here and there to fit more content in for the clients, and working with us pilots to make sure that the take-off and landing setups all work with the sites we end up on.
Q: I know safety has always been a priority for you and your team, and over the years I’ve seen expensive fireworks shows for events get cancelled over rain, high winds, and even high seas. What weather conditions trigger instant red flags for having an effective drone show?
A: Because we share the airspace with manned aircraft, there are several things we watch. We are required to have a 1000 ft cloud ceiling, and to have a 3 nautical mile visibility in order to take off. This is so that not only can other people see us, but so that we can see THEM coming. As unmanned aircraft, it is always our responsibility to get out of the way of manned aircraft. High winds can be an issue for sure, we’re ok up to a constant 20, and sometimes higher gusts, but that can also affect the battery life as the drones work harder to stay in place. This ends up being a decision of the pilot and is why we track weather so closely. Thankfully the weather gods tend to smile pretty favorably on us!
Q: Thank you for taking the time to do this Q&A. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you all have in store for future shows. As a final question, do you have any dream locations where you want to pilot a drone show?
A: My pleasure! Always happy to chat about drones for sure. Oh man, there are a couple, but going to have to keep them under wraps for now, there are prying eyes everywhere, and SkyElements will be the first to make these flights happen! Don’t want to give anyone any ideas, but I promise I’ll send links as soon as they hit Youtube, Instagram and TikTok!
It was really great to catch up with KC Sealock, and I truly enjoyed seeing what Sky Elements Drone Shows brought to the table. I would highly encourage anyone producing a future event to consider incorporating their work when possible.
For more information see skyelementdrones.com, and check out their many videos on youtube and other social media. There is an entire show devoted to Empire Strikes Back that uses 1000 drones that I highly recommend!