One hundred forty drones took to the skies above Greenmount Cemetery at 10 p.m. sharp Saturday in a glowing and patriotic spectacle featuring vibrant images colored red, white and blue against the black backdrop of night.
About 1,200 people gathered Saturday at the Durango Transit Center to watch the city’s premiere drone show produced by Verge Aero after a street dance and band performance by McCurry Trio and Desert Child for Independence Day celebrations.
Spectators were treated to drone depictions of the American flag, star patterns, a soaring bald eagle and a homage to the city with drones flying in formation to spell out “Durango” to close out the street dance that started at 6 p.m.
Ellen Babers, Durango community events administrator, said the show went well. She heard “Ooh’s” and “ah’s” from the crowd when the drones transitioned from one image to another.
She said a segment that consisted of stars rotating at various intervals, shrinking into smaller stars before expanding into the shape of a larger star, appeared to be a crowd favorite.
“People really liked the Durango part,” she said. “When it spelled out Durango, people seemed surprised. Like, ‘Oh, this isn’t just a generic show, this is about us.’”
Other images included an outline of the continental United States, the letters “USA,” and a spinning globe shape that gave the drone show a 3D feel.
The drones were laid out earlier in the evening in a square grid, with each drone placed 4 feet apart. Peter Smiatek, pilot and designer of the drone show, worked with a crew of about six people, including volunteers.
Smiatek synced the drones to a GPS and radio tower in preparation for the evening’s show. Six minutes before takeoff, a deer wandered straight past the drone grid, narrowly avoiding stepping on them.
“That could have been a disaster,” Smiatek said as his crew scanned the nearby area with flashlights. No other deer were visible.
Two minutes before takeoff, the crew’s portable generator shut off – out of gas.
“We have double secure power,” he said. “The generator fell off two minutes before the show started. It’s like Murphy’s law, anything that could happen will happen. So it’s best to be prepared.”
During prep, the crew ran several tests with the drones. The drones shot up 3 to 4 meters, hovered for about one second and then dropped back to their designated grid space on the grass.
Smiatek worked from a makeshift command station where his laptop and transmission tower were perched.
“The base station is the heart of the show,” he said. “It’s a computer and it’s a distribution system connected to radios and an antenna. And that’s it, basically. Very flexible and a good system.”
Chris Lutts, vice president of sales at Verge Aero, said he thinks Durangoans enjoyed the performance. From Greenmount Cemetery, he could hear the cheers and whistles of the audience at the Durango Transit Center.
“The people we’ve been working with have been great,” he said. “Clearly, the city enjoyed it, so that’s awesome. That’s why we do this. It’s no different than any other entertainment, man. You love that feedback. It’s validation that what you’re doing is something that people really like.”