Zev Bertini, left, and Samuel Zhao hold up the drones that have replaced the fireworks capping a day at the Fair at the PNE. The evening show, called the Northern Light Sky show, runs 10:15 p.m. nightly at the PNE’s Festival Park in Vancouver.
Gerry Kahrmann / Postmedia News

Move over, fireworks. The drones are in town.

Instead of the usual fireworks capping a day at The Fair at the PNE, this year a fleet of drones takes centre stage in a choreographed light show synced to music.

“It’s a really cool new art medium,” said Everett Findlay, the CEO of Arrowonics, a Toronto-based tech startup that puts together the nightly finale mounted above a pond and can be viewed from Festival Park. “It’s working in 3-D space as opposed to a flat canvas.”

The show, called the Northern Light Sky display, is designed to showcase B.C.’s natural beauty. Equipped with LED lights, the drones fly in formation, about 100 metres high, and dance, shimmer and glitter in the night sky like giant fireflies, forming shapes of a mountain, a flower, a bird, and the northern lights.

The show, held in Festival Park at 10:15 p.m. nightly, lasts just over seven minutes, though total flying time clocks in at about 11 minutes. The drones’ battery life maxes out at 15 minutes.

Drone shows are still relatively uncommon. Arrowonics is the first company in Canada to be approved to mount multi-drone performances for audiences, said Findlay.

The company grew out from a research lab at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies. Its founder, Hugh Liu, is a professor; Findlay was a graduate student in the program before he joined the company.

The challenging part of mounting a drone show is in the behind-the-scenes: Designing the software, creating the communications systems, the logistics of transporting drones from city to city.

Another hurdle is getting the permits from Transport Canada. Flying unmanned aerial vehicles is heavily regulated in Canada, and there’s a plethora of safety measures in place, including a geo-tether, an invisible dome that limits the drones’ fly zone.

But once all that is in place, there’s not a lot of incremental costs to putting on a drone show nightly, explained Findlay, making it a more cost-effective alternative to crowd-pleasing spectacles than fireworks.

“With our technology, you can put a couple people here, recharge the batteries, and go night after night,” he said. “There’s massive potential to have an unreal show every night that doesn’t cost a ton.”

Drone shows got a high-profile boost at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show when 300 drones recreated a shimmering American flag during a portion of Lady Gaga’s performance at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.

Intel’s Shooting Star squad also holds the current world record for most drones flying simultaneously with a fleet of 500 drones taking to the air in Germany last November.

Findlay believes it’s just a matter of time before drone shows become more mainstream, and could rival fireworks in popularity — and possibility.

“This is not going to be a flash-in-the-pan technology,” he said.

“Soon, you’re going to have thousands of them flying together in the sky with the possibility of creating 3-D animation, essentially creating movies in the sky. There’s no end with what you can do with them.”

But that’s in the future. For this summer at least, the company’s work is already paying off in the oohs-and-aahs and applause from the crowd, which the Arrowonics team can hear from the takeoff and landing area.

“That’s the most rewarding thing,” said Findlay. “To hear the crowd enjoy something you worked so hard to put on.”

chchan@postmedia.com

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