The Dubai story in 3D: How 500 drones transform into popular landmarks for stunning show

Here is what happens at the take-off and landing platform on Bluewaters Island as hundreds of aerial vehicles soar into the night sky

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By Sahim Salim, Visuals by Rahul Gajjar

Published: Thu 19 Jan 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Wed 15 Mar 2023, 6:58 PM

500 drones; 16 crew members; 2 daily shows; countless programming hours and priceless reactions. It’s all in a day’s work for the team that brings alive the Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF) Drones Show for 46 nights in a row.

Khaleej Times was given exclusive access to the purpose-built take-off and landing platform on Dubai’s Bluewaters Island, where we witnessed first-hand how the hundreds of drones take off to tell the Dubai story.

It was a windy day, but the pilots, with their fingers crossed, were confident that the aerial vehicles would take off.

An announcement on the PA system told people assembled in front of Ain Dubai — the world’s largest and tallest observation wheel — that the show would start within minutes.

A countdown ensued and the buzzing drones defied the winds and took off in droves to their positions at the flight space above the Bluewaters and The Beach, JBR. The show had begun:

Saying it with drones

It’s virtually impossible to take your eyes off the story being narrated in the sky. After a while, your mind does not register the fact that the blinking lights are buzzing drones. Each aerial vehicle works as an individual entity, staying on its own flight path to execute the intricately-choreographed patterns using 3D animation tools.

The shows at 7pm and 10pm are united by the exploration of ideas related to technology, robotics and the future, according to a top official.

“The first show is inspired by a day in the life of a tourist, taking the audience on a journey through the DSF,” Kaltham Alshamsi, executive, Events Planning, Dubai Festivals and Retail Establishment (DFRE), told Khaleej Times. “The show begins by depicting a traveller flying into the UAE and landing at the Dubai International Airport, before experiencing a journey through the famous iconic sites of the festival, and then soaring off into the sunset after a magical day exploring the emirate.”

The second show is based in a futuristic metaverse, giving spectators an immersive glimpse into Dubai two decades from now. “Set in 2040, the forward-looking experience shows what Dubai might look like as the city propels into a trailblazing tomorrow,” added Alshamsi.

For the Khaleej Times team, the highlight of the evening was when the drones all buzzed back to the landing platform. Crew members were seen carefully examining the drones and checking their health. Have a look:

Launched in December 2020, the show is now in its third annual edition. You can catch the longest-running drone show in the region till January 29.

Where the drones rest after a hard day of work

A team of 16 people consisting of pilots, mechanics, and technical and logistical crew work daily to bring the show alive.

Suhail Maitreya, director, Events, Eventify Entertainment, said the drones are stored in a tent on the landing platform that act as the “airport and hangar”.

“A typical day starts about four hours prior to the show with a routine that requires us to physically check the batteries of all drones and lay them out in a preset formation. Post the first show, the batteries are swapped for new ones. After the last show, the drones are placed back in the storage tent and locked overnight.”

Only two pilots are needed each night to conduct the show. They operate the fleet through a state-of-the-art control system.

The rehearsals typically start 10 days before the first show, according to Maitreya. “The drones are initially flown in batches until three-four days prior to the first show, when all 500+ drones go up in the air.”

There are multiple teams that come together to build the show. The drones and animations are provided by UK-based Sky Magic, which has been in the field for almost a decade. “The music is produced by On the Sly Audio Production, and the show by DXB Live.”

When weather plays spoilsport

The drone shows get impacted by the weather when there are high-speed winds and rain.

“We have a weather station at the take-off and landing platform from which we monitor the conditions closely. Based on these findings, the Crew Chief takes a call on whether to continue with the show or cancel it,” said Maitreya.

“It is, however, our endeavour to continue with the shows unless cancellation is absolutely necessary, and considering weather conditions can change fairly quickly, the decision is taken as late as practically possible.”

Planning the next

The current season of the drone show may end on January 29, but the planning for the next begins immediately after.

“Every season of the DSF requires meticulous planning and a lot of thoughtful consideration to bring visitors and residents the best possible experience we can offer each year. The initial stages of the drone show planning for the upcoming edition typically begin right after the current edition of DSF ends,” said Alshamsi.


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