Flying high for National Day

By Li Xuanmin Source:Global Times Published: 2019/10/15 21:23:40

Drone formations light up skies across Chinese mainland during long October holidays

A view of the large-scale drone show celebrating the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China in Guangzhou Photo: IC

Several days ahead of the National Day holidays, a giant show of drones featuring 500 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) lit up the sky in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province.

Glittering drones, which flew 148 meters above the Pearl River near Guangzhou's landmark building, Canton Tower, took the form of Chinese characters which read, "Celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China," among other messages, and the number "70." 

The synchronized drone fleet also formed images showcasing the blossoming process of a kapok, Guangzhou's city flower, winning applause from the audience.

Across China, in Lanzhou, capital of Northwest China's Guansu Province, Wuzhen in East China's Zhejiang Province, Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province, and Beijing, illuminated drones danced over skylines during the holidays, echoing the festive atmosphere and injecting new vigor into the joyful moods of locals. 

Guangzhou-based EHang is one of the Chinese autonomous aerial vehicle companies that witnessed a rapid surge in orders ahead of the National Day holidays. 

"Our clients come from all around China, and most of them prefer drone shows that feature images including Chinese maps, the national flag and Chinese characters reading, 'I love China,'" a spokesperson from EHang told the Global Times over the weekend.

The firm even brought their spectacular drone shows outside of China during the holidays. 

As seen in a video clip EHang sent to the Global Times, 100 drones also lit up skies in São Tomé Island in the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, an African island country in the Gulf of Guinea. The UAVs formed images of a Chinese giant panda and a Chinese dragon, as well as numbers such as "1949-2019," spreading the happiness of Chinese people abroad. 

Expanding market

China's drone performance market began to spread around 2016, according to EHang's spokesperson. The market is expanding at an unprecedented speed and is making its forays into third and fourth-tier cities, as illustrated by the large fleet of drones across China from October 1 to 7. 

In 2018, the domestic market was valued at 200 million yuan ($28.37 million), and industry insiders estimate the sales may double in 2019.  

Along with the soaring market is an upgrade in technology, which is moving toward becoming more intelligent in terms of programming and more sophisticated and 3D-oriented in terms of images formed. Programming is known as a display's "brain" that determines every drone's route before show time. 

In 2017, the US Super Bowl halftime show featured 300 swirling drones accompanying singer Lady Gaga, generating a huge buzz around the world. The drones, first dotted as an array of sparking stars in the sky, formed a fluttering flag.  

"Back then, it was very novel. But if you look at that show from present perspective, it's very primitive. Drones only stayed in the sky for a very short time, blinking, and the image the fleet presented was not precise," an industry insider who prefers not to be identified told the Global Times on Monday.

He noted that nowadays, picky customers no longer buy into simple images like that. "They want something more complicated, more dynamic, and in a moving formation. Shows also need to last longer."

For simultaneous drone shows, the biggest difficulties lie in flight positioning and communication security, EHang's spokesperson said. Chinese drone companies are taking the global lead in tackling technological barriers, Ke Yubao, executive secretary general of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association of China, told the Global Times on Sunday. 

"For a drone show to be successful, flight positioning is key. The more accurate the positioning is, the more clear and closer to its real subject the image is. Positioning also matters to the timing of UAV lighting," the industry insider said. 

Some top Chinese drone companies can achieve positioning with an error margin at the centimeter level, the insider said. Differences in timing of each UAV's lighting can also be reduced to less than 10 milliseconds. 

Drone fleets have also improved in stability, wind resistance and endurance ability, which means they can fly higher and for longer, the EHang spokesperson noted.  

"China has a huge market for drone performances [and applications]. The country excels against foreign competitors in technology and artistic display," he stressed. Ke added that Chinese firms also have an edge in terms of orchestration and storyboarding.

Chinese firms were the first to come up with the idea of deploying drones to draw images across skylines, according to Ke. And Chinese companies such as EHang were the first to break the world records for the largest number of drones used simultaneously at an airborne show, and the largest number of formations executed by drones during a display. 

However, flight communication is still subject to greater uncertainty, as communication signals can be easily blocked by UAVs' surrounding environment including trees, mountains and water, or by wireless networks, Ke said. 

In May 2018, a Chinese drone company deployed a fleet of 1,374 drones for a 13-minute show in Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, which could be seen above its historic city walls. During the show, about half of the drones in flight lost synchronization due to external interference. 

Fierce competition

The cost of running a drone show ranges from hundreds of thousands of yuan to tens of millions of yuan, depending on the number of drones being deployed as well as the sophistication of the images being formed, an industry insider said. 

"Hiring drones incurs a huge cost, and so does the charging, programming and communication [of the drones]," Ke explained. But he noted that with the expansion of "market scale," the cost of research and development could drop significantly, therefore pushing down the cost of arranging a drone show.

Ye Baifan, vice director of a drone show at the 2019 Big Data Expo in Guiyang, Southwest China's Guizhou Province, said during an interview that the cost of the show was about 1 million yuan.

"The cost will dwindle to 200,000 yuan in the future" with the maturing of technology, he was quoted to have said in a China Central Television report. 

Currently, there are dozens of Chinese drone companies specializing in airborne shows, media reports showed. As costs drop further, more players will enter the battlefield, heralding fierce competition in the near future, the anonymous industry insider predicted. 

He suggested drone-orchestrating firms focus on how to tailor their shows based on local culture and traditions. 

For example, in Xi'an, drone companies could perform shows related to the Terra Cotta Warriors, which could then "resonate with local audiences and visitors," he said. 

Early adaptation to new trends and new technologies, such as the 5G network which can guarantee stronger telecom communication signals, will be another way to stand out from the cut-throat competition. 

Drones for an airborne show generally fly at 300 meters above the horizon, which falls within the exact height range covered by the 5G network. 

The EHang spokesperson told the Global Times that the firm is researching technologies to be powered by 5G, the application of which will significantly elevate flight positioning and flight data security. "It will bring revolutionary change to the drone performance industry."


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