A bevy of drones dancing to a Coldplay song, A Sky Full of Stars, was one of the most memorable parts of America’s Got Talent: Extreme season premiere earlier this year. That standout performance earned Philadelphia drone show company Verge Aero the “Golden Ticket” from judge Simon Cowell, which catapulted the group straight to the finale. Now, the FAA is revealing how federal aviation inspectors worked behind the scenes to make Verge Aero’s drone shows a reality.
Verge Aero performed twice for the TV talent show. The first was the Golden Buzzer audition that was taped in September 2021 in uncontrolled airspace near Atlanta. Then came a bonus show, which did not air on TV but can be seen on YouTube. It was taped in January near the Santa Monica Airport. You can check out the videos from both these shows at the end of this article.
Drones steal the show in ‘America’s Got Talent: Extreme’
Verge Aero couldn’t have performed for America’s Got Talent: Extreme without the FAA approving the waivers necessary to pull off such a show while coordinating airspace access for the company.
According to Chris Doherty, the aviation safety inspector who reviewed Verge Aero’s waiver applications, the drone team worked closely with the FAA to get their operation tuned so they’re compliant with the regulations. “They were very enthusiastic about teaching us about their operation, about how their system works.”
Doherty is part of a five-person team that handles complex requests for waivers from various drone regulations, the FAA explained in a blog post. As a team, they review about 5,000 requests a year, with Doherty typically handling 10–20 applications a week. An increasing number of them are related to drone light shows.
In the case of Verge Aero, the FAA waiver allowed one pilot to fly multiple drones at the same time and at night without anti-collision lights on the aircraft. The company needed to agree to numerous safety precautions to get this waiver, including:
- Assigning at least one visual observer to watch groups of no more than 250 drones;
- Training remote pilots and visual observers to recognize and overcome the potential visual illusions that occur during night flights;
- Creating and monitoring safety zones to keep spectators safe; and
- Incorporating technology to keep the drones in the operational area, prevent collisions if one drone in the fleet fails, and terminate flights if necessary.
Doherty analyzed both the hardware and the software capabilities of Verge Aero’s drones. He needed to know how the team would respond to drones that might fly away from the fleet during a show. So at one point, company Cofounder Tony Samaritano brought in a visual presentation to better explain the specifications to Doherty.
“Once he did that, the light came on and I saw what he was talking about,” Doherty said.
Verge Aero’s commitment to safety becomes even more apparent when Doherty explained how Samaritano gleaned safety insights from him and incorporated them into the company manual to better serve future customers. “They were very realistic about what they were wanting to do, and that lent a lot of credibility to their application,” Doherty said.
Coming back to the show, Verge Aero created a significantly larger safety buffer between the operational area for the drones and America’s Got Talent: Extreme‘s judges and audience. They also rehearsed the show the day before the tapings.
“When all the drones are laid out on the launch pad, we command them to hover,” Samaritano said. “That really shakes loose anything that could go wrong.”
Verge Aero said its US business doubled last year and that the “floodgates are really opening” this year.
But more drone light shows also mean more safety inspections for the FAA. Doherty said about two dozen operators currently have waivers to either test new technology for drone light shows in the daytime or to perform shows at night. The agency’s focus is on making sure all of them operate safely.