Onward and Upward: Drone Technology & the Future of Live Production

Ayla Kress
12 min readDec 15, 2016


Predicting the future on the silver screen demands creativity. The future, twenty or thirty years from now, is often depicted in film as world of digital screens, hover boards and even the Cubs winning the World Series. When the future does arrive, decades after the film, we find some predictions even ones we thought impossible, true -like the Cubs winning the World Series. Although these predictions are not always accurate film creators derive their ideas of the future in a similar fashion to professional forecasters in other industries. However, predicting the future of the entertainment industry itself, demands not only creativity, but knowledge, the ability to analyze current trends, and utilize market theories across multiple industries.

While there are many different segments in the entertainment industry, one of the oldest, Music, is undergoing a fierce transformation with the evolution of the digital age and in particular, streaming. In 2015, digital music sales accounted for 45% of the global recorded music revenue, overtaking physical music sales’ 39% market share for the first time in history. This is largely due to streaming, which has increased 45.2% over the last year and now accounts for 43% of digital music revenues. This change in music consumption has led to greater reliance on revenue from live performances, and in turn tour revenue increased significantly. This year alone the top 100 tours worldwide have hit a record breaking $1.48 billion in combine grosses, which is a 3.1% or $45 million increase over last year’s record. With the shift of industry revenue streams comes the demand for new technologies and innovations that will align with the needs of the industry, and produce larger profit margins in live entertainment. The easiest way to increase profit margins in live production is to reduce all costs that factor into the production and increase ticket sales. However, it’s never quite that simple.

Market forces, for one, have not allowed a significant enough of a pricing drop in production equipment to allow for smaller tours to afford state of the art equipment. Funding arena sized shows with an elaborate production plan requires the backing of financially stable record labels or production companies. Currently superstars like Beyoncé or Bruce Springsteen, who respectively hold the #1 and #2 spots of Pollstar’s top tour list, are the type of artists that can afford innovative technologies and produce larger than life live performances. Beyonce’s Formation tour was nothing but spectacular with a 60’ monolith that rotates on the main stage, and a second stage that stores and then reveals 2,000 gallons of water near the end of Queen B’s set. These are the shows that some fans have come to expect, but few artists are able to create.

Consumers, considerably the largest market force, create demand. However, it the digital age consumers have the ability to choose when and how they consume music content. In the past decade before virtual reality (VR) and watching live performance at home has been restricted poor cellphone videos from friends or MTV Live, formerly Palladia. Now, virtual reality allows for viewers to experience the shows up close and personal from the comfort of their home. This aligns with content being king, if you can watch the same show at home in VR and get a similar experience it is likely less people would attend concerts. Differentiating the physical live experience to VR is key to keeping audiences in the venues. Creating a unique experience, positive connections and memories for fans that are physically attending the show will keep VR at a continuous second to the physical experience. In addition, if venues ease the process of navigation and merchandise/concession purchasing guests will have a more positive experience. This is why venues like FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou adopted Estimote beacons and startups like Sidestep are getting Beyoncé’s attention and even investment. Estimote creates beacons that can be used to direct fans to seats using their cellphones and a specific app created for the venue, whereas Sidestep allows for easier merchandise purchasing for fans through an app while at the show. While these startups have two very different abilities they’re looking to better the fans experience in the venue, not by being complex but by being simple to use. Simplicity is important in curation, while offering a slew of options can be great, it can also be overwhelming. This is something Disney Parks and Resorts has noticed, and is the epicenter of many innovations in venues and live production for the entertainment giant. Curating and presenting the best experience over many different will be important to tours and especially the ever growing, oversaturated festival market.

What will be “best” innovation of the future? It’s hard to say, but what’s even harder is determining where it will derive from. In the modern era convergence is one of the greatest factors of innovation, different industries produce new technologies as they merge. Keeping a close eye on not just the music industry but a wide array of industries including transportation, aerospace engineering, and many others provides a sounder foundation with which to predict the future. Music itself is an art form of convergence. Many musicians are multidisciplinary artists and are working closer in the production of every aspect of their career Music combines the art of live story telling like theater, music, and visual artwork through videos, lighting, and much more. Watching closely to changes in all industries of live production and types of venues, like Disney Parks, will be key to the live music industry having a successful future.

Driven primarily by technological progress, drones and wearable technology will create ease in live production in the distant future which is changing positively due to economic growth, but must also consider environmental decline for conservational and economic reasons. Technological progress contributes to many of the changes in the modern age including in the music industry. In the past, Moore’s Law has been regarded as a standard, however as of recently Intel, the company Moore himself founded, has noted silicon transistors cannot continue to decrease in size while increasing processing power. This will drive innovations in different directions and possibly change the overall structure of the computer itself. While it’s an entirely different rabbit hole to go down, it means an overall increase in what our machines will be able to do at a lower cost. The results will mainly be seen in software and a computer’s ability to handle more complex codes which would allow for increased ability of autonomous machines,from cars to drones and sensors. Not surprisingly, Intel already started building a platform for creating autonomous aerial drone light shows which they showcased for the first time in Sydney. While they appear almost like UFOs in the sky there’s undeniable potential for more, and on a side note the fireworks industry should be concerned.

Intel’s Drone 100 Sydney Showcase

In addition to technological progress economic growth is a key contributing factor to increased attendance in live entertainment. Since 1987, Harris group found that the share of consumer spending on live experiences and events relative to total U.S. consumer spending increased 70 percent which may explain the record breaking tour grosses. In addition, Millennials born during this increase, now contribute over $1 trillion in spending and trends suggest they prioritize experiences over material goods.

In addition to preferring experiences over material goods, Millennials place high value on the environment and companies that are environmentally friendly. In touring it’s neither cheap nor environmentally friendly carting semis of touring equipment around. For example Beyoncé’s Formation tour required 56 semi-trailers to transport the production from one venue to the next. With increasing gas prices, paying for truck rentals, drivers, and gas something has to give. Either the size of the equipment or the shipping methods. Changing the size of the equipment’s more likely and has more pros as well. Making the equipment easier to set up results in less stage hands and spending less on labor costs which can be one of the largest budget lines for a tour. While its clear innovation is demanded by consumer and producer in the live music entertainment industry, it’s unclear what it will be however through looking at current trends in similar industries like theme parks provides a hint of clarity.

Disney has long reigned king of magic, from the early days of animation to current innovations in digital technologies. Although magic in the literal sense has never been used at Disney, or that we know of, they create its illusion through the use of state-of-the-art technologies and inventive creativity. Having both the physical and financial infrastructure to take on large projects, such as the MagicBands which utilize RFID chips in wristbands for enhanced experiences across the park or dazzling drone performances, places Disney in a unique position to test what will work with consumers on a far larger scale than any music festival or tour. While Beyoncé has sold over 1 million tickets on her Formation Tour, Walt Disney World boasts an impressive 52.5 million visitors annually to Walt Disney World’s six parks in Orlando, Florida. Walt Disney World is an entirely different scale with consistent consumers of a wide variety that acts as the perfect focus group. Disney has the ability to test and develop new ideas that might be the key to the future of more than just the entertainment industry. As Cliff Kaung, editor at Wired wrote, “if you want to imagine how the world will look in just a few years… skip Silicon Valley and book a ticket to Orlando. Go to Disney World.” Kaung is referring to Disney’s recent $1 billion MagicBands initiative. He equates the magic of the bands to their simplicity and ability to hide its complex infrastructure. MagicBands are the pinnacle of personalization for Disney. The bands grant the ability for guests to see their names displayed at the end of rides, open their hotel rooms, pay for items throughout the resort, and even experience dinner like Belle from Beauty and the Beast with the Be Our Guest dinner experience. Being greeted by name, and having your pre-selected entrée ready when you arrive are both key features of the Be Our Guest dinner experience, and while this dinner may not be Beyoncé on stage with a 60’ display, it is a performance that’s perfectly timed from the kitchen to the service and every step in-between. Learning timing, efficiency, and how to utilize technology to create a seamless personalized and engaging experience is what will keep live performances, and artists engaging to fans while on tour or for any festival looking to be a cut above the rest.

What’s the catch? This is expensive and not many production companies, at the mercy of ticket sales, can bet a $1 billion on new innovations. The music industry must do so on a boot strap budget, and in a lean startup fashion, doing the most with the least. Regardless of Disney’s $1 billion investment in this innovation it was produced in lean fashion. So lean in fact it was developed onsite at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in an unused building behind Toy Story Midway Mania. Although from the outside it looked like an old movie house, inside a team of engineers and creatives worked tirelessly to showcase what the product would and could do throughout the park. This bootstrap startup or lean start up model they utilized shows that Disney is not only focused on creating innovations, but doing so efficiently. Beyond the innovations with MagicBand that are similar to cashless festivals bands in respects of their purchasing and entry power, Disney is also innovating with drones. While few touring artists have experimented with drones in live production, those who have, such as Muse on the 2016 Drones World Tour, know there are both pros and cons. During the tour, Muse’s production crew encountered an array of difficulties during set up and operation of the drones, which are larger than most fans in the audience. Many times radio interference or the software, which controls and operates the drones remotely, couldn’t connect due to weak signal strength in the large concrete arenas and stadiums. These difficulties caused varieties of problems, from late patron admittance to the arena floors or postponing shows to a following evening. However, regardless of the predicaments, the drones may have gotten the Muse production team into the spectacle of the show. They proved it was worth the troubles, at least to the fans’ eyes. While Muse may be one of the first to utilize drones on tour, but Disney isn’t far behind.

One evening this past November, at the most magical place on earth, Disney debuted new technology in partnership with Intel to create a dazzling display of 300 LED-equipped drones telling a visual story and accompanied by a score appropriately named Starbright Holidays, similar to the showcase in Sydney. As the drones took flight in the night sky they turned on their LED lights and created patterns of constellations in the sky. Slowly the drones rearranged themselves, transforming into new shapes as the score played along. The drones effortlessly move about controlled by remote software Intel is developing which is similar to 3-D animation software that allows pilots to plot drone positions. While restrictions still heavily apply to drones, companies like Intel are working with the FAA to facilitate growth in this market. As drone technology continues to develop so does the adaption of drones into different commercial spaces. Josh Walden, general manager of Intel’s New Technology Group, agrees: “I absolutely see this applicable to controlling a fleet of drones in a commercial space.” While that commercial space surly goes beyond live entertainment, in recent years’ fans have longed for more extravagant stages at festivals and superior tour production as drones could alleviate costs of equipment and labor, etc. While Disney may not have been the first to implement the RFID chip wristbands, or even utilize drones in visual displays they have the ability to innovate products and test them with their large market each year. Keeping a close eye on Disney and Intel’s creative ideas as well as other theme park innovations will help differentiate festivals and tours among the growing live entertainment industry.

Drone flying during Muse’s 2016 Drones World Tour

Intel will likely see a vibrant future in drones regardless of what commercial space the drones reside in. In twenty years from now after Intel has restructured the composition of the computer and AI has the ability to not only drive our cars, but our drones the live production landscape will be far different. Drones and self-driving technology will allow for an entirely different production set up. In an optimistic scenario, the semis will no longer require drivers from venue to venue, but be self-driving energy efficient trailers. No longer will dozens of stage hands unload cases and diligently put the stage together piece by piece. Instead, as the back of the trailer opens drones will automatically fly to a prearranged position inside the venue, where they’ll wait patiently until called into action later in the evening similar to Intel and Disney’s drone display. This would allow lighting designers to go above and beyond the restrictions of standard rigging setup and essentially open the entire venue space as a playground for lights. While this is an optimistic scenario, in a surprise free scenario adaption will take place slower, and while this outlook listed above is realistic it may take longer due to financial reasons and the current high cost of drone and AI software technology. While drone and self-driving technologies will allow for higher profit margins it will come at the cost of cutting staff numbers. No longer will drivers for buses, or semis be required and while this is unfortunate for bus drivers this alleviates restrictions of drivers only driving 8 hours at a time or the need for multiple drivers as well. In addition, this could alleviate costs associated with labor set up, as even for a two thousand person venue, labor can cost over $3,000, if even half of labor costs are reduced by replacing lights with drones it would make a remarkable difference in profit margins for larger scale shows that have ten to twenty times the budget for labor. The innovation of drones may result in a transformation scenario where a completely unforeseen innovation develops. In music there have been many technologies in which fans have desperately hung to hoping the innovation will develop like with Tupac and holograms. Although this still seems far-fetched these unexpected ideas are typical of transformation scenarios where the future takes on an unexpected turn to do a key development or pivot in the industry not yet seen.

The future may be far more creative than the silver screen lets on, Disney may take on the positive West World qualities within their parks and the Vikings may win the Super Bowl. Although we view these as distant or unobtainable, especially the latter, only time will tell. As it will in the live production industry. Until then we can simply imagine what will replace each and every aspect of live production from the tour transportation to lighting.