As the world’s eyes were transfixed on Wilmington last weekend for President-elect Joe Biden’s victory celebration, viewers watched as the post-speech fireworks show was upstaged by a high-tech drone light show. Red, white and blue lights moved across the night sky in sync, taking the shape of a map of the United States, the Biden campaign logo and the words “President-elect.”
Cable news anchors marveled over the scene, with at least one suggesting tech giant Intel could be powering the impressive show since it’s been behind similar events in the past.
They were wrong.
The entire spectacle was the work of a Philadelphia startup, Verge Aero. The small team — made up of CEO Nils Thorjussen, three engineers out of Rowan University and a few technicians — have been quietly building their drone light show business at the Pennovation Center in West Philadelphia over the past four years.
Verge Aero has stepped out into the spotlight in the past year, making news in April for putting on a show for health care workers above West Philadelphia’s hospitals. Locally, it's also been behind promo light shows for Q102 and the Eagles, and has sent technicians to Germany and New York in just the past week to promote commercial launches, including for the Xbox Series X and other radio stations.
Thorjussen said Saturday’s show, however, is a “significant milestone” and a sign of what’s to come as the drone show market starts to take off. He said his company has laid the groundwork to go with it.
“It’s a really nice validation of years of hard work,” Thorjussen said. “We have proven ourselves on a world stage, and we’ve been building toward this for a long time, and it’s really hard to do.”
While he couldn’t get into too many details about the Biden event last weekend, given confidentiality agreements, he did say shows like it are complex endeavors.
Not only is it tough to plan an event on short notice, Verge Aero has to gain Federal Aviation Administration approvals to fly. When 200 drones are flying in restricted air space above highly protected individuals like the next president of the United States, the company also has to go through additional layers of security approvals.
In general, flights like Saturday night’s are tricky since each of the drones, which act as individual pixels in the sky, need to take off at exactly the same time for the automated flight to be perfect. (Thorjussen did say Saturday night’s flight was “perfect.”)
He couldn’t state the exact price of a drone show like Biden’s, since it varies based on factors like location and the number of drones involved. The drone show industry is also so new pricing can be “all over the map.”
Intel’s public pricing guide puts a show of 100 drones at $50,000, and Verge Aero’s prices are in the same ballpark, he said.
Thorjussen isn’t new to the entertainment tech world.
Verge Aero is his third startup, with his previous ventures focused on lighting control systems for LED displays at events. The roots for Verge Aero go back eight years, when Thorjussen saw a TED talk on drones delivered by Vijay Kumar, dean of Penn Engineering. Excited about the potential use in the events world, Thorjussen delved into the industry and eventually found a team of young engineers to build the company. All are from the South Jersey and Philadelphia area, he said, and studied at Rowan University in Glassboro, known for its engineering school.
So far, the startup’s only raised a few hundred thousand from outside investors, including Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania and Osage Venture Partners. Most of the funds have been put in by Thorjussen himself, since it’s been tough for him to get investors to understand the company. Many ask the standard investor question about what the overall market opportunity is ahead, but since the drone light show space is so new, it’s tough to quantify.
“We’re a freak show in the land of investment,” he said with a laugh, adding the Biden event might help in that regard in the future, although they aren't actively raising funds at the moment. “I think people probably will view us a bit differently than they did before.”
While Intel has been at the forefront of commercializing drone shows, he said it hasn’t been focused on creating the tools to make those capabilities easy and accessible. A handful of other smaller startups have been operating in the space, but Thorjussen argues they are piecemeal approaches that hobble together different bits of software and delivers “suboptimal results.”
Verge Aero, Thorjussen says, has developed its own hardware and software over the past four years following an extensive R&D plan. Its aim is to make orchestrating drone light shows an intuitive, user-friendly experience, where someone can easily pick a design and put it into the sky.
“We’ve laid the groundwork, so now we’re really starting to push the pedal to the metal, differentiate technically from the competition and be able to do much more sophisticated things, because we invested the time up front to get it right first,” Thorjussen said.
At first, 2020 seemed like it would push the industry back since large events where Verge Aero was slated to show off its skills, like the Coachella music festival, were cancelled. Now, he’s seeing business pick back up, especially with commercial launches, and sees a future where drone shows are just as common as fireworks to mark special occasions. The Biden light show was a big step forward in that process, he said, but he still sees a lot of hard work — and opportunity — ahead.