From sails to skies: drone show demonstrates the versatility of AV sync tech

A drone show above Sydney Harbour displays the words "I wear my own" and an image of a crown.

The Art Gallery of NSW launched its 2022-23 summer season in a major way with the opening of their $344 million landmark development, the Sydney Modern. To celebrate its inauguration, the Gallery assembled a week-long program of entertainment, experiences and events—the most striking of these being a nightly drone show, Art Up, featuring visuals by Kamilaroi artist Reko Rennie.

Every evening, 400 drones animated Rennie’s artwork in the sky over Woolloomooloo Bay, accompanied by a soundtrack composed by Deborah Cheetam AO, a Yorta Yorta woman, soprano, composer and educator. We deployed our audio-visual synchronisation technology, LiveSync, to enable anyone in Sydney watching the show to listen to the soundtrack on their mobile phone by simply scanning a QR code—no app download required. 

This event closely followed the success of From the Sails: Light Years projected on the western sails of the Sydney Opera House, for which LiveSync was originally developed. The platform itself is an evolution of our audio-visual synchronisation technology designed for the Bob Dylan Center and Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame.

A drone show above Sydney Harbour portrays a fist and the word "LOVE".

Following the successful deployment of LiveSync in From the Sails: Light Years, the production company behind Art up approached us to determine if the same platform could be adapted for use in a drone show.

However, unlike projection systems connected to a media server such as the one used for the Sydney Opera House a few weeks prior, drone control software typically operates in isolation. They’re generally not built for integration with AV systems, and don’t require a network connection to function. Whereas LiveSync, by the very nature of what it is designed to deliver, works on the principle that everyone’s personal device can connect to it via the internet, and is intended for integration into a wider AV system.

The challenge for our team was to develop a software-based solution that could be effortlessly operated by the production team to synchronise the soundtrack to the drone show—and we had just 10 days to make it happen.

A hand holds a mobile phone scanning a QR code on a sign.
Welcome screen for Art Up mobile experience.
Headphones screen for Art Up mobile experience.
Listening screen for Art Up mobile experience.
Admin screen for Art Up mobile experience.

The short timeframe prevented the development of a fully customised integration with the drone control system. However, unlike the Sydney Opera House projection looping multiple times throughout the evening, Art up took place only once per night, removing the need for an automated sync message to be sent at regular intervals.

We developed an iOS-based control app through which the drone production team could trigger the audio. The first stage of this confirms the AV sync system is live, which then activates the web player on the viewer’s personal device. The second stage then begins the audio broadcast, designed to be manually initiated at the same time as the drone show. While the real-world capability of LiveSync has been demonstrated at a better-than-broadcast-standard of latency when fully integrated with a media server, this form of manual launch for Art up became a practical solution as the drone animations featured no moments of sudden or tightly synchronised movement in relation to the soundtrack.

"It's clear this is a very useful technology for large-scale public displays, whether it be a drone show, a projected video, a laser show, or anything similar. Anytime you need a simulcast audio soundtrack for many people across a wide outdoor area, this is a great solution. You don't need to be dealing with loud PA systems in public areas and their issues with audio delays. With this technology, you're 100 percent in sync. It doesn't matter where you are, whether 500m or even more than 1km away, you're still hearing the audio at exactly the right time."

– Rob Keniger,
   Lead Mobile Engineer, Art Processors

A hand holds a mobile device displaying the welcome street for the Art Up mobile experience.

Signage placed across the numerous public viewing areas prompted visitors to load the audio client by simply scanning a QR code or visiting the AGNSW website. At approximately 8:30pm the 400 drones launched above Woolloomoloo Bay, animating Reko Rennie’s artworks as they danced across the canvas of the night sky, viewable from as far as the CBD, Darlinghurst and Kirribilli.

Viewers could choose to use headphones for an immersive solo journey or use their device’s in-built speakers for a shared experience as Deborah Cheetam’s poignant soundtrack played via the LiveSync platform. The system also generated the audio for broadcast into the PA speakers on the Sydney Modern’s viewing platform, and for the simulcast audio on FM radio. Even if surrounded by multiple audio sources, the viewer always heard the audio in perfect live sync.

The user experience followed the same “low friction” principle of From the Sails: Light Years, enabling both ease of access to the LiveSync platform and minimal engagement to play the audio. A small information button provided further information about Art up, Reko Rennie, and Deborah Cheetam.

A drone show above Sydney Harbour portrays a red skull.