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Producers of St. Pete Pier lighted drone show talk challenges of high-tech display

The show can be seen from five miles away, producers say.
A drone show element called a "light ribbon" was part of a recent show by Firefly Drone Shows, a Detroit-based company that puts on dozens of drone light shows all over the U.S. They are producing a show for the first anniversary of the St. Pete Pier that will put 300 drones in the sky July 31.
A drone show element called a "light ribbon" was part of a recent show by Firefly Drone Shows, a Detroit-based company that puts on dozens of drone light shows all over the U.S. They are producing a show for the first anniversary of the St. Pete Pier that will put 300 drones in the sky July 31. [ Firefly Drone Shows ]
Published Jul. 30

A ballet of 300 drones will dance in the sky over Tampa Bay on Saturday, as a high-tech light show comes to the St. Pete Pier. The drones will be spinning and moving in formation to celebrate the first anniversary of the city’s landmark reconstruction.

The producer of the show, a Detroit-based company called Firefly Drone Shows, is one of just a handful in the U.S. permitted to perform the choreography of lighted drones.

Ryan Sigmon, co-founder of the company that started in 2017 and now produces about 40 drone shows per year, said he finds it almost quaint that they get compared to fireworks.

Fireworks have been around for centuries. Drones, which are now used widely by police, photojournalists, real estate agents and government inspectors, weren’t even a consideration a decade ago. And for entertainment value, a drone light show involves animators, millions of lines of computer code and two to three months of work to complete.

“There’s just so many different applications and things you can do with drone light shows from a technology standpoint that is just not possible with fireworks,” Sigmon said.

They can add text, and make features spin or add iconic images. Be on the lookout for St. Petersburg landmarks to be featured in lights during the show, he said, but Sigmon didn’t want to reveal any spoilers.

As a result, it’s a much more expensive enterprise than a fireworks show. The average city spends $30,000 to $50,000 on a July 4 fireworks show. A 15-minute show, like the one Duke Energy is sponsoring for Saturday’s display, tends to run about $200,000, according to industry estimates.

Dozens of drones are lined up for a recent show produced by Firefly Drone Shows. The Detroit-based company will set up 300 lighted drones in Vinoy Park for an air show over the St. Pete Pier on July 31. But Vinoy Park is a bad place to be, producers said. It's best to be about a mile away to take in the show in the sky.
Dozens of drones are lined up for a recent show produced by Firefly Drone Shows. The Detroit-based company will set up 300 lighted drones in Vinoy Park for an air show over the St. Pete Pier on July 31. But Vinoy Park is a bad place to be, producers said. It's best to be about a mile away to take in the show in the sky. [ Firefly Drone Shows ]

And it all takes just one pilot at show time, though there will be 10 people on site setting up and keeping their eyes on the skies.

Kyle Dorosz, a pilot, co-founder and president of Firefly, said one pilot will be running the board with a single laptop as 300 drones lift off from Vinoy Park with bright LED lights that can be seen from five miles away.

The reason, he said, is all the heavy lifting has already been done. The company has done several test runs in a rural section of upstate Michigan to make sure all the bugs have been worked out. The signals are accurate down to a quarter of a second, he said.

Drones have become a new way to entertain crowds. In 2016, technology giant Intel put on the first public performance in the United States — 300 of the company’s Shooting Star drones did a Christmas show at Walt Disney World. The choreographed aerial performance was set to holiday music.

The Federal Aviation Administration had to catch up quickly with policing the new drone technology. It still requires that drones not fly over crowds, and there are limits if they are within the airspace of nearby airports.

The Duke Energy Drone Light Show will celebrate the first anniversary of the St. Pete with an aerial display of 300 drones equipped with LED lights.
The Duke Energy Drone Light Show will celebrate the first anniversary of the St. Pete with an aerial display of 300 drones equipped with LED lights. [ City of St. Petersburg ]

The drones have plastic foam bodies and usually weigh less than a pound. They have a geo-fence built into the software, similar to an invisible dog fence that won’t let the drones operate beyond a certain point. Firefly compiles all its software and makes all of its drones in-house in Detroit, so they say they have a brighter LED light than most, can withstand up to 25 mile-per-hour winds and have a longer battery life to put on a 15-minute show, Sigmon said.

The one thing the drones can’t take is rain, Dorosz said. So the show might get pushed up or delayed depending on the weather, but so far the forecast looks good.

Current rules do not allow such shows to fly over crowds, so the St. Pete Pier show will take place over the water and stretch over 500 feet across the sky. That’s actually an advantage, Sigmon said.

“The reflection of those bright drone lights off the water,” he said, “makes for a really pretty mirror effect.”

If you go

Duke Energy Drone Light Show: A choreographed show of 300 lighted drones will take place Saturday over the water by the St. Pete Pier. The first 2,000 guests at Spa Beach Park will receive a lighted wristband for the show.

When: Programming will begin at 5 p.m. at Spa Beach Park on the St. Pete Pier with live bands and DJs. The drone show will begin at 9 p.m. at 660 Second Ave. NE, St. Petersburg.