How do those awesome drone displays work?

Ban fireworks, replace them with cool drones

This post is a bit of an experiment…

Remember London’s New Year drone display? Of course you do. The Mayor of London sensibly realised that hosting a big, happy fireworks spectacular might be a bit off when hundreds of people were dying every day. So instead, he did something much more appropriate, and had hundreds of awesome drones make some awesome sky-art near a slightly more respectful quantity of fireworks.

I genuinely think these sorts of drone displays are brilliant. And my completely unironic opinion is that we should place more legal restrictions on fireworks usage now that we have an alternative that is technically better on every conceivable metric1.

(Here’s the Scottish one. Here’s another spectacular one. Here’s a fucking brilliant one in Russia marking the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight.)

I thought it was awesome when I saw it, which is why in the first moments of 2021, my thoughts were not focused on reflecting on the challenges of 2020, or my hopes for 2021, but instead my brain was stuck wondering how these sorts of drone shows actually work. Like, what software do they use to design shows? What sort of artist can draw Captain Tom with quadcopters? Do they have to plot each drone individually? And how do they stop two drones hitting each other when transitioning from globe to turtle shell?

Anyway, this is why being a journalist is awesome. Because rather than just wonder to myself, I managed to persuade Engineering & Technology magazine to let me write about it. And this gave me an excuse to phone up and talk to the people who actually put together both the London New Year show, and the separate Scottish one (similar premise, but narrated by David Tennant).

And the good news is, I found out the answers to my important questions. So please go over to E&T and check out my piece there to find out. And if you like it? Please share it with your nerdy friends2.

Was this post useful or annoying?

And one last thing. You may have noticed that this post was not another blistering contrarian take, but was in fact a plug for work I’ve done elsewhere. Now I’ve got this little Substack mailing list, would you mind me sending on the occasional post like this? Or would you prefer I stick to the incendiary opinions3?

I’d be genuinely curious to hear your feedback. I presume by the fact that you’re reading this, you’re at least - conceivably - interested in my work. I’m not set on one outcome or the other - so do let me know in the comments section what you prefer.

And don’t worry, I want to get on to a better cadence of blitzing out spicy takes. I’ve got a few I’m working on in various stages of completion, so rest assured I will be attempting to make you absolutely infuriated again soon.


I’m surprised my opinion about this is so illiberal. People say that when you become a parent, you become more conservative. I don’t have a child, but last summer we did get a cat and I think it has had much the same effect, as I now think that Cat Bin Woman should have got life without parole.


And make sure you fully appreciate my brilliant headline that the magazine left intact.


It’s funny how this Substack post which is literally about fireworks displays is probably the least incendiary thing I’ve posted on Substack so far.