Since China banned fireworks across more than 400 cities to reduce pollution, a new entertainment has appeared to fill the skies: drone swarms.
Shows featuring more than a thousand drones forming 3D animated figures and other images are being booked for celebrations across the country. Among those cashing in on the technology is EHang Inc, which has been contracted for several performances and in the process of recording a record for the number of airborne craft in a single display.
Swarms burst on the global stage at the Winter Olympics in February, when Intel Corp is used more than 1,200 drones to fly as one in the shape of athletes. Since PyeongChang, there has been a debate on their use, including the controversial potential for military applications. 10.5 million yuan ($ 1.6 million) Ehang's focus for now is on money from civilians, with a May 1 live performance launched from the ancient city wall of Xi'an watched by more than 100,000 people and part of a deal payday.
“We have other business sectors but the first one we have monetized the drone swarm performances,” said Ehang co-founder Derrick Xiong, adding that EHang is also developing passenger and delivery drones. “It's a more environmentally friendly way of doing fireworks.”
The startup's automated swarms, which communicate and coordinate with each other, have been featured in nearly a dozen cities in the country. 's Acura division to Chinese tech giants JD.com Inc and Baidu Inc.
The Xi'an performance took the world record from Intel for the biggest drone display by using more than 1,300 while Intel plans a show featuring more than 1,500 for its 50th Anniversary in July.
While the Intel Performance at PyeongChang was pre-recorded, EHang has performed for live audiences. Some drones failed to stay in the formation during the Ehang's record show, and Xiong said the issue may have been due to man-made interference, but declined to provide details.
Founded by Duke graduate Xiong and his partner Huazhi Hu in 2014, Guangzhou, China-based EHang raised $ 42 million in a Series B Capital, GGV Capital and ZhenFund.
EHang's drones are not the only ones getting attention. When state broadcaster CCTV held its annual Spring Festival Gala, the world's most-watched TV show, it featured Zhuhai-based Oceanalpha's performance of 80 boat bots.
Verity Studios, a company founded by robotics expert Raffaello D'Andrea that focuses on live drone shows, has carried displays in 20 countries, including at Cirque du Soleil and on tour with Metallica.
One of the challenges in China is restrictions on the nation's airspace. Xiong has got to know that by canning traffic. Profits from shows are supported by an abandoned amusement park in its hometown.
Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the Teal Group, said regulators are concerned with making sure each drone is operated by one operator.
“There are military applications for swarms, but in terms of commercial, it's nascent,” he said. “The concern is that the regulatory authorities may allow this in limited circumstances and widespread use is still far off.” – Bloomberg