If you were one of the 111 million viewers to watch Super Bowl LI, you may have seen the half-time show which featured not only a performance by Lady Gaga, but over 300 swarming drones performing an intricate light show. However, because of Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Part 107 small unmanned aircraft system (UAS) rule, the drone display was pre-recorded. The FAA deemed more than 34 miles surrounding the stadium a no-drone zone between 4 p.m. and midnight on game day. No exceptions, even for Lady Gaga.
Even with the pre-recording of the drone sky choreography, Ascending Technologies/Intel (the drone manufacturer/technology behind the swarming drones) still had to get waivers from the FAA for this operation. Part 107 sets certain restrictions on the operation of drones (e.g. daylight only operations, single drone operation by a single drone operator within visual-line-of-sight). The FAA granted a special waiver for this light show, permitting the drones to be operated at night, allowing the operator to operate the drone outside of visual-line-of-sight, at over 400 feet high, while operating several drones at the same time.
To operate all 300 drones simultaneously, Ascending Technologies and Intel had to demonstrate that:
• The remote pilot in command (PIC) had means to identify the boundaries of any structure so as to avoid collision with, or damage, to property;
• Communication between the remote PIC and a visual observer allowed from the remote PIC to light the drone and/or ground the drone with sufficient time to yield right-of-way;
• Individual system failure ( i.e., one of the drones) does not interfere with the operation of the other drones or cause incidents, accidents or loss of control involving the other drones in the swarm;
• The geo-fence system and its associated flight control system operate properly and are programmed for visual alerts if they contact any geo-fence boundary;
• The drone sensors and their flight control systems operate properly; and
• The weight of the drone did not exceed .75 lbs. and
• The ground speed of the drone did not exceed 14 miles per hour.
These requirements were met and the FAA waived some portions of Part 107 so that drones could become a part of Super Bowl history. Surely, not the last time we will see something like this.