Shanghai Display Involved 3,281 Drones, Breaking Record Established Last Year By Shenzhen Damoda Intelligent Control Tech With 3,051 Drones.

By David Hambling

More Than 3,000 Drones Flew In Formation To Create The Logo Of Genesis Motors Above Shanghai’s Iconic Skyline Last Week To Mark The Company’s Launch In China. The record-breaking publicity stunt is a milestone in the deployment of massed drones. Just as building the tallest skyscraper is a point of pride and a sign of technical achievement, assembling the largest drone formation has become a hard-fought technology contest between U.S. and Asian companies.

The Shanghai display involved 3,281 drones, breaking a record established last year by Shenzhen Damoda Intelligent Control Technology with 3,051 drones. With numbers this large, the individual drones become pixels in a giant airborne display. Five years ago, such drone light were hardly imagined. In 2016, Intel INTC -0.5% established the first record with a flight of 100 of Shooting Star drones. Intel broke its own record with 500 drones later that year, only to be trumped by Chinese rivals Ehang with the first thousand-drone display with their Egret drones in 2017.

Numbers have steadily escalated since then, with the lead changing place several times between Intel and challengers as formations of 2,000 and 3,000 drones took to the skies. It is not simply a matter of getting so many drones into the air; as the latest display shows, all need to be controlled with extreme precision to create the desired effect. Increasingly complex aerial displays where drones morph from one formation to another in time with music are becoming common.

This type of display relies on a central controller, which tracks all of the drones and maneuvers them in real time, typically using multiple cameras from different angles to position them accurately in three-dimensional space. This type of mass flight is very different from an actual drone swarm: in a swarm, the drones are all flying themselves, maintaining their formation as flocking birds do by following a simple set of rules.

While a drone light show would disintegrate immediately if the radio communications were lost, a true swarm requires minimal communication and so cannot be jammed. That makes drone swarms interesting to the military, hence swarming drone projects like DARPA’s Gremlins, China’s barrage drones and the tactical attack swarm demonstrated at India’s recent Army Day event. Various types of ‘motherships’ to deploy drone swarms from land, air, sea and near-space are in development in the U.S. military and elsewhere.

True swarms are more challenging than the lightshow version, and so far the numbers have been significantly smaller. Again the main players have been the U.S. and China. The U.S. Navy’s 30-strong swarm of Coyote drones in 2015 was eclipsed by 67 Chinese Skywalker drones in 2017 , then 103 U.S. Perdix drones in 2017, before China seized the lead again with a 200-drone swarm in 2018.

Since then there have been reports of military swarms in the low hundreds rather than thousands, though planners anticipate that much larger swarms are in the near future. Drone light shows do pave the way for the large-scale deployment of small drones. The challenges of managing, programming, maintaining and even recharging thousands of drones at once are becoming routine commercial activities, and it is possible that formation flying may find other applications.

For example, a team at Georgia Tech has shown how several drones can work together to carry a heavy package. In theory, enough small drones could combine their power to deliver a luxury car to your driveway in a few years … but for the present, most of us are only likely to see them in light shows. Meanwhile, the military will continue to work quietly on the potential of thousands of drones striking together.

This news was originally published at Forbes.