Watch: In the world’s largest drone performance, some machines went rogue

Drones out of control.
Drones out of control.
Image: YouTube/Beijing News
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A Labor Day celebration display created by over a thousand drones dotting the night sky in the Chinese city of Xi’an should have been a sight to behold. And for the 100,000 or so spectators, it was—but not necessarily for the right reason.

The show, put on by an affiliate of drone maker Ehang, consisted of 1,374 unmanned aerial vehicles forming messages like ”sprinting Xi’an,” and “5.1” (May 1). But at times many of the drones went off script, resulting in meaningless blobs instead of clearly recognizable characters, as shown in a video from Beijing News (at the 0:27 mark):

The fleet of Chinese drone maker Ehang went out of array during the display on Labor Day in Xi’an, China.
The fleet failed to display “sprinting Xi’an” during the Labor Day show.
Image: YouTube/Beijing News

The drones created hovering displays (link in Chinese) as high as 260 m (853 ft) after taking off from the 600-year-old city wall of Xi’an, according to Ehang Egret, the drone maker’s affiliate. The number of drones in the fleet was an homage to the wall, which spans 13.74 km, said Ehang Egret CEO Shi Zheyuan.

The problems arose just two days after Ehang Egret set a new Guinness World Record (link in Chinese) for the largest number of unmanned aerial vehicles airborne simultaneously during a rehearsal (video below) for its Labor Day performance. The previous record holder was Intel, which launched 1,218 drones during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in February—surpassing Ehang’s earlier record of 1,000 drones in a Lunar New Year show in 2017.

Before the show, Shi warned Chinanews that signal interference from spectators’ mobile devices could cause some drones to fall out of formation, noting that if just one drone went off course, it could lead to chaos. Ehang Egret, which the city paid $1.7 million (link in Chinese) to put on the show, also experienced problems retrieving its drones afterward, with some UAVs—the heaviest weighing 20 kg (44 lbs)—abruptly dropping out of the sky.

Ehang Egret said its location system experienced interference after taking off, which led to the disarray. The firm said it is still investigating the source of interference.

Founded in 2014, Ehang is hoping to commercialize flying taxis this year. In February, Ehang said it had completed over 1,000 flying tests with the Ehang 184, which can reportedly carry a person weighing 118 kg (250 lbs) for 23 minutes.

Update: The piece has been updated with a statement from Ehang Egret on May 7.