Tyler Johnson Blending Engineering, Art in Dazzling Drone Light Shows

Monday, November 20, 2023
Drone fireworks show at Rose-Hulman.

Mechanical engineering alumnus Tyler Johnson is co-founder/lead drone technology and operations engineer with Sky Elements, which produced the show that filled the sky with dazzling displays at this year’s Homecoming bonfire.

Tyler Johnson has turned a pyrotechnic hobby into launching an illuminating career helping pioneer spectacular drone light shows that have filled the skies with record-setting displays that have brought dazzling LED animations and visual art in the night sky to events across America. 

That list would also include Rose-Hulman’s 2023 Homecoming. 

The 2016 mechanical engineering graduate is a co-founder and lead drone technology and operations engineer with Sky Elements, a Fort Worth, Texas-area company that’s rapidly ascended—like its fleets of choreographed drones—to become the premier U.S. provider of drone light shows. As chief engineer, Johnson spearheads their proprietary drone fleet, advanced show programming, and operations to bring clients’ visions to life. 

"We blend aerospace engineering and creative artistry to produce an extraordinary new medium that’s redefining live entertainment," he said.

Some of Sky Elements' most elaborate drone show productions include:

- 1,592 drones broke Guiness World Records for creating the largest logo and largest flag in a display at this year’s International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions meeting. This was on top of the world record for largest aerial sentence by spelling out "Happy Independence Day" in a July 4th celebration display.

- A 400-drone light spectacle for the Grammy Awards, with a colossal spinning award visible across the Los Angeles skyline.

- 824 drones at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium that recreated Kobe Bryant's legendary basketball career highlights

- A towering 200-foot tall luminous horse and disco ball for Beyoncé's Houston Astros homecoming.

Rose-Hulman’s Homecoming display had 500 drones lighting up the skies with images of the college’s logo, Rosie mascot, a variety of STEM academic objects, an outhouse, and a cannon (whose blast ignited the bonfire and fireworks show).

“It was special to me that we designed something that people would appreciate and fondly remember,” Johnson stated. “I remember building the bonfire as a student and know how important Homecoming is to the Rose community. We wanted to plan a show that matched that significance.”

Watch the Homecoming drone show here.

These remarkable productions demonstrate Sky Elements' pioneering innovation that’s shaping the future of entertainment. At the core is their state-of-the-art proprietary drone fleet, custom engineered in-house by Johnson's team. The specialized quadcopter drones are equipped with ultra-bright, full color, and individually programmable LED lights to create stunningly vivid aerial displays viewable for miles.

"The aircraft utilize an array of technologies including GPS guidance, radar altimeters, inertial motion sensors, and our advanced flight control software to autonomously navigate within designated 3D 'geofences' keeping them safely distanced from the audience," Johnson explained.

For complete show control, a powerful ground-based computer system keeps track of up to 500 drones simultaneously with precision.

"It synchronizes the drones' movements down to millisecond-level timing accuracy while coordinating the commands for the LED lighting and animations for the entire fleet in perfect unison," described Johnson.

Programming the intricate shows represents an immensely complex undertaking. "Our proprietary animation software allows us to choreograph dynamic designs, 3D effects, and animations often requiring over 16,000 lines of code for a 10-minute performance," said Johnson.

For Johnson, pioneering this new medium has been deeply rewarding, allowing him to merge imagination with his love of robotics and engineering in service of creating joy and wonder. That pathway started at Rose-Hulman, where he earned a minor in robotics and designed a drone to assist in a senior-year capstone project.

With roots in fireworks displays, Sky Elements aims to complement traditional pyrotechnic shows while providing a more flexible, sustainable, and safety-focused solution. Improvements in battery technology could extend the current limits of each show. The company also sees tremendous potential for integrating drone shows with augmented and virtual reality.

"We've only begun scratching the surface," remarked Johnson. "I envision drone shows becoming more and more immersive, using technologies like VR goggles to surround viewers and take them on a journey."