Viewers in Canada, U.S. marvel at first drone display over Niagara Falls, Ontario
By DRONELIFE Feature Editor Jim Magill
The first drone show held in the skies above Niagara Falls, in Ontario, Canada, gave observers on both the Canadian and U.S. sides of the border spectacular views, as 300 drones formed colorful images highlighting the city’s many attractions.
The display, presented on Oct. 5, by Belleville, Ontario-based North Star Drone Shows, served as a demonstration project to Niagara Falls city leaders, who are considering adding drone shows to supplement the town’s regularly scheduled fireworks displays.
Depending on their vantage point, observers could view the fleet of UAVs as they performed their series intricate maneuvers against a background of city lights or the iconic falls. The drone fleet formed images that showcased the area’s high points, from the falls themselves, to its exciting gaming industry, to the surrounding wine country.
The genesis of the show was three years in the making, as North Star leaders worked to persuade city officials of the need to embrace drone technology as a tool to promote their city, North Star President Patrice Guy said in an interview.
“Niagara Falls is a city based on tourism. And we kept on telling them, “Don’t let this pass, this is the future,’” he said. “After three years, finally, the president of the Hotel Association contacted us, and said, ‘Well, if nobody wants to do it, I will do it.’”
The Hotel Association hired North Star to do a demonstration show, and invited municipal and business leaders to observe the trial. Based on the initial positive feedback he has received; Guy is confident that his company will be invited back next summer to perform drone shows on a regular basis.
Staging the show required a lot of regulatory paperwork, as the skies in which the drones performed is designated as highly restrictive Category F airspace, the same level of classification as the airspace above the national Parliament in Ottawa.
“As you can imagine, getting all the permits to fly in there, it’s pretty complicated,” Guy said. Fortunately, as one of the first companies of its type in North America, North Star had formed a good working relationship with Transport Canada and Nav Canada, the privately operated, non-profit corporation that owns and operates Canada’s civil air navigation system, he said.
Each drone sky performance presented by North Star is unique, based on the demands of the individual customers.
“For the Niagara Falls show, the customer wanted all the text in the show,” he said. “And the customer also wanted the show to rotate upon itself and make a 360-degree turn during the duration of the show.”
In order to produce the desired effect, a team of about 20 designers worked for about four days to design the show in a 3D application. Once the design was recorded into a computer, “We extract the position of the light that we see on our screen and the position on the screen gets translated into a flight path that gets uploaded to each and every drone,” Guy said.
Although the sponsors of the Niagara Falls display opted not to include an audio component, Guy said his company has the capability to produce displays in synchronization with a soundtrack, with music broadcast to speakers, or streamed online to allow viewers to hear the audio portion of the show on their mobile phones.
Guy, a Montreal native, got into the business of aerial display through his work producing spectacular fireworks displays, chiefly in Asia and the surrounding region. “That’s where my career took off,” he said.
Among the highlights of a 33-year career in the international pyrotechnics display industry, he served for three years as the technical director of the Philippines International Pyro Musical Competition. He also worked with Ocean Park Hong Kong, the Shanghai Special Olympics and the Asian Games. In addition, Guy was featured on the National Geographic channel’s “Inside Hong Kong’s Big Bang.” His work is featured twice in the Guinness Book of World Records: as designer and technical director of the 84th birthday of His Highness the King of Thailand in 2011, and as producer of the largest fireworks show ever in 2017.
He first became interested in aerial drone shows about seven years ago, after viewing a UAV-driven display on his computer. ““And I was like: I’ve got to do that. This is the future.” He began researching companies that produced drone shows and found that at the time, there were only two or three such companies in the world.
“Finally, I found a startup company in Latvia that had just come out with a software support. So, I contacted them and I got on a plane and I went to Latvia and I stayed there for a week and they taught me everything about how to do it,” he said.
He started his own company, with a fleet of 50 hand-soldered and hand-assembled drones. “Nowadays, we buy them from a supplier that does a much better job assembling them than I did,” he recalls. Three years ago, he moved back to Canada to co-found North Star Drone Shows.
In recent years, as global warming has heated up the threat of fireworks igniting wildfires, many jurisdictions are abandoning traditional fireworks display for drone shows. But Guy, who is still involved in the traditional pyrotechnics business, thinks there will always be a place for both kinds of aerial displays.
“That’s a question that I hear often. I don’t see drone shows being a competition to fireworks. I know there are a lot of guys in the drone business who like to think that this will take over, it’ll kill fireworks. I don’t believe that, “Guy said. “With my company, our customers for drone shows are different than our customers for fireworks.”
For now, North Star Drone Shows is focused on expanding its operations in the Canadian marketplace. “I started an American company and I sold my shares in it about a month ago just to focus on Canada because the market grows so fast that it takes all my energy just focusing on this country.”
He said the Canadian market for drone shows is growing rapidly, with entrepreneurs launching four new companies in the past year.
“I think that what you see now is barely scratching the surface of what it will be in five years. Prices are going to go down; companies are going to become more efficient. The price of the equipment to do the shows is going to fall,” he said.
His biggest concern for future industry growth is that newly formed companies maintain a high level of professionalism and safety in their operations. “That’s what scares me the most, is to see somebody having an accident and the government putting the brakes on all of a sudden.”
Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to Forbes.com and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.
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