• Type: Whitepaper
  • Date: January 2016

By Dan Daley, Special to AVIXA

Live DronesUnmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have moved from the novelty stage to the stages of live events. Brand experience company Freeman, has been stoking interest in drones integrated into live-event production by incorporating drone-shot video into its PlanTour virtual event-venue visualization portal. It merges venue fly-throughs with user-controlled 360-degree imagery to create immersive real-life views of meeting spaces and facilities.

“We’re using drones as a way to capture video and points of view of venues,” says William Collins, Freeman’s Vice President of Digital Product Management. But, he adds, “We’re also using them to stimulate interest in the drones themselves.”

Drone video footage of show floors becomes content, available for event producers to promote their events. (Collins stresses that these flyovers are done after show hours, to avoid overflying people.) With post production, including informational overlays and dramatic music scores, drones are adding a cinematic dimension to event promotion.

Drones are also becoming integrated into the production side of live events. In an aerial ballet, choreographed by event producer George P. Johnson at the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show to introduce Infiniti’s new 2017 QX30 crossover, a squadron of drones attached to translucent boxes hid the car from view at its press event. The drones then took off in a sequence that revealed the car on stage.

Tony Carmean, Chief Marketing Officer and Co-Founder of Aerial Mob, the San Diego-based drone specialist that conceived and executed the project, says the auto show reveal underscored both the complexity of drone operation and the increasingly dense regulatory environment around it. While there are plenty of videos extolling the ability of drones to fly in formation, the reality is that for populated live events, where multiple drones will operate, individual pilots will be required. For the Infiniti-reveal project, that meant “auditioning” — Carmean’s word, reflecting the high volume of cinematic and television drone work Aerial Mob also does — more than 30 drone operators, looking for the ones who could hit their marks in a critical once-and-done event, and culling their number to 23, including back-up pilots. They rehearsed the flight choreography several times over three days in the same downtown Los Angeles warehouse where the actual event would take place.

Big Business, But Safety First

The market for commercial drones has nowhere to go but up — the FAA estimates that approximately 7,500 commercial UAVs will be flying by 2019.

However, drones and people can make for a dangerous combination in confined spaces. Aside from several hundred reports of close encounters between drones and commercial airliners, drones at events are now getting unwanted notice. One particularly notable incident occurred during the U.S. Open tennis match between Flavia Pennetta and Monica Niculescu when a drone was spotted headed toward the stands. Fortunately, it crashed into an empty seating area, but it was one more in a growing inventory of incidents that have prompted tighter regulation of UAVs. The FAA had already prohibited the use of unmanned aircraft within five miles of any airport within the U.S. without permission from air traffic control. Event planners should be aware that the FAA’s new regulations supersede a hodge-podge of state and local regulations already in place; according to The New York Times, more than 20 states approved drone laws in 2015, as did major cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami.

There are safety strategies that can be implemented or required by event producers. For instance, “geo-fencing” uses software to limit where unmanned aircraft can fly. Another, called “sense and avoid,” allows unmanned aircraft to autonomously detect a potential collision with another aircraft or object and take evasive action. A study conducted by Bard College of 927 recorded incidents between drones and manned aircraft in U.S. airspace suggests air-traffic management as a way of keeping drones and manned aircraft separate (something that NASA is actually looking into).

On the Sales Side

As happened with video screens, it’s inevitable that event producers will want to go big with drones as they become more widely available. Anticipating demand, AV distributor Stampede has created an entire division dedicated to the drone category, sourcing equipment — including drones themselves, as well as add-ons such as cameras, downlink connections, and command and control systems — from 17 vendors. But, says Eric Jameson, Stampede’s Product Manager for the UAV category, when it comes to event production, the drone is the tip of the iceberg — producers and integrators need an end-to-end solution as drones become more ubiquitous and are tasked with more complex projects.

Stampede’s Drone Video System is analogous to a videoconferencing solution, he says. “With videoconferencing, people tend to focus on the camera, but there’s much more that’s needed to make a complete system,” he explains. “The same with drone operation: You need the drone, but you also need add-ons like cameras, maintenance and repair, and training. That’s the complete solution.”

Stampede is offering the package to AV systems integrators, as well as training through a strategic alliance with the Unmanned Vehicle University (UVU), a Phoenix school that offers flight training for UAV operators. Customers have been receptive. Jameson says he’s seen sales soar to integrators that are offering drone services to industrial and government clients in addition to their regular AV services. He sees no reason why that won’t grow to include integrators that service the live-event production sector.

At the moment, though, most of the interest is coming from event producers themselves, eager to add drones to their bag of tricks. For them, Jameson says, it’s been an educational process, one hopefully ending up with an introduction to an AV integrator that’s a certified drone service provider.

“Event producers want to incorporate drones, but they don’t all know how to do it,” he says. “With this solution, their trusted AV vendors can now provide it, end-to-end, with a single P.O.”

Less Air Out There

In case you were wondering (and you should be), drones shouldn’t be affected directly by the looming loss of radio frequency spectrum; this year’s FCC auction will see most of the 600-MHz range lost to professional wireless systems users. However, the shakeup may push some displaced wireless systems into bands where drones operate.

David Ekstrom, Production Manager at RedButton, a Dallas-area brand engagement company that provides drones for live events, says drone flight control generally uses the 2.4-GHz frequency, which also is used to control the three-axis gimbaled camera the drone carries. (The video signal from the drone comes back to the receiver in the 5.8-GHz band.) The 2.4-GHz channel can be encrypted, which is critical to avoid losing control due to interference in that frequency — accidental or otherwise. (Drone hacking is now a thing.) 

Frequency coordination, which is common in the UHF and VHF ranges, is rare in frequencies above 2.4 GHz, but that may have to change as drones proliferate. Ekstrom recalls a recent Bruce Springsteen concert for which RedButton was providing drone video that began experiencing interference with the return signal.

“Turns out the local police were using a frequency that was very close to that, around 4.2 to 5.2 [GHz],” he says. “We asked them to use a lower frequency and they did. Now, before we do an event, we’re not just meeting with the head of security, but a venue’s head of technology, too, so we can coordinate frequencies.”

As a technology category, drones will evolve from novelty to mature business in a very short time. Regulation, training, liability insurance and other related necessities are struggling to keep up the pace. But once the dust settles, live-event producers will have found a new tool for their palettes and AV integrators will have an additional source of revenue.