Sky Elements drone light show Oakland A's Coliseum

Preston Ward: go behind-the-scenes with Sky Elements Chief Pilot

Preston Ward is the Chief Pilot of Sky Elements Drones, the leading provider of drone light shows around the U.S. His colleague, Rick Boss, recently invited me behind-the-scenes of his company’s Star Wars drone light show at the Oakland Coliseum as part of the team’s Star Wars Night. I got to chat with both of them about what goes into the job — and how they pull off such magnificent drone stunts.

There’s a giant recap post of the event here, including tons of photos. I also put a video on my YouTube channel featuring some of the behind-the-scenes highlights, which you can watch here:

And yes, you can read the Q&A with Rick Boss here, but not before you first read what Preston Ward has to say below. He’s got the coolest job on the planet:

Sky Elements drone light show Oakland A's Coliseum
Preston Ward

Drone Girl: I’m here with Preston. He’s the chief pilot for our show tonight. He’s going to tell us more about what’s in his hands. What is this?

Preston Ward: This is one of our light show drones. It’s just like any other drone you might see, except that it’s only got a light. It doesn’t have a camera. The other difference is  that it’s got a very sophisticated GPS.

DG: Because it has to be way more accurate than, just, my normal camera drone.

PW: Absolutely. So this will get accurate down to 1 centimeter.

DG: How much does this thing weigh?

PW: This weighs about 2.5 lbs.

Sky Elements drone light show Oakland A's Coliseum

DG: So we’re standing in front of a stack of 500 drones right now. Why are they in this stack?

PW: They’re stacked just for ease of transportation. That’s how we move them from place to place. After this, they’ll get laid out in a grid format. That’s because our first frame in the animation for the show tonight is a grid. We’ll match that on the ground so they can fly up into the grid.

DG: So this show has just you as the chief pilot. But, there’s a fairly robust crew here, too. It’s not just you. So what are all these other people doing here to help staff the show?

PW: A lot of the crew is calibrating the drones. Every time we go to a new site, the drone has to be calibrated, so we go through the calibration process just like you would with any drone. Then, they lay out the grid and get it set up. From there, they’ll just wait until the show is done to pick them all up at the end of the night.

Sky Elements drone light show Oakland A's Coliseum

DG: Your show tonight is 500 drones, but you’ve done others with 1,000. Is it tougher to do a show with more drones involved because it’s more stuff to set up? Or is it mostly the same with more drones in a show?

PW: More drones simply means more people. Last week we had 1,000 drones so we had a crew of 30. For tonight’s show of 500 drones, we have a crew of 14. It took a lot longer to do the calibration for each one of those.

But actually flying a show, whether it’s 100 or 1,000 drones, it’s actually very similar. We’ve made a lot of improvements network to make it just as efficient to do a show that big.

DG: Okay, so you have pretty much the coolest job title being Chief Pilot. What is a day in your life like? 

PW: I do a couple things, including managing our whole pilot core. We have 14 pilots who I’ve trained up to run shows for us. I also do shows like this one, and I’m traveling often for them. For instance, I recently started the day in Dallas, but then I flew out to LA, and then that night went home. I’ll be doing shows all over the country, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s been a wild ride.

Sky Elements drone light show Oakland A's Coliseum

DG: When you’re piloting the drone show tonight, what will you be doing?

PW: Once they’re all laid out, I’ll get them ready for the show. That means setting their geofence, updating their locations, giving them their individual flight paths and then looking for any errors or deviations in their headings or anything that could cause an issue.

After that, I set the time to the drones. That’s the big functionality of the software. It synchronizes all the clocks, so they know exactly when that show is supposed to start. 

When they’re flying their preprogrammed paths, there are no sensors. They’re just relying on their GPS and their time program.

DG: How are you feeling when you’re operating as the Chief Pilot? Are you stressed? Is it fun?

PW: Initially I used to get stressed, especially for the first couple of shows. I mean, you’re just thinking about the sheer dollar amount with the drones in the air. 1,000 drones means $2.5 million in the sky at once.

But at this point, I’ve done so many of these. Anything that could go wrong, I’ve seen go wrong, so at this point it doesn’t get to me anymore. I’ve learned how to overcome issues, so at this point I just have fun and crack jokes with the crew.

DG: So what could possibly go wrong?

PW: The biggest thing that could go wrong is if they lose that signal from the sophisticated GPS. If that happens, then they’re not relying on the precise GPS. They’re only relying on a more standard GS that you might see in other drones. That translates to the images that the audience sees not being as precise.

DG: So the drones fly over this giant parking lot and they just stay here, right? They don’t actually fly over the stadium?

PW: Correct. They’re going to be over this big area that we have sectioned off and restricted, per FAA requirements.

DG: And speaking of the FAA, we are pretty close to Oakland International Airport. Tell me, what went on to get approvals to fly in restricted airspace?

PW: We did have to get authorization to fly drones here. Normally drones can’t fly here at all. We’ve worked closely with the MLB and the FAA to even get drones approved at all for shows like this, getting approval to use drones in post game activity.

DG: You’ve done so many drone shows. Which is your favorite?

PW: Mine was one we did a couple weeks ago with 1,002 drones. It set a Guiness World Record, and incorporated fireworks too. 

And you can watch a virtual version of that record-breaking drone show right here:

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