On a sticky late-August night in New York, Drake has chosen to share the stage with a non-human entity. As he bounces around the stage during “Elevate,” a cloud of drones illuminates the dark space above him.
Drake is an artist shaped by the internet, one whose latest meme-frenzy of a song, “In My Feelings,” defined the entire summer through dance challenges and memes. It’s not surprising that the artist would incorporate buzzy, high-tech entertainment into his tours. It is shocking that he’s still one of the few stage performers to do so, given the popularity of the aerial devices.
Drone company Verity Studios has been steadily building its live performance profile. Its drones have flown in performances by Cirque du Soleil and Metallica. But the Canadian rapper represents a new high point, says Verity founder Raffaello D’Andrea. “Drake is about as good as we can get.”
Flight conditions for drones are tricky and vary by venue. An outdoor concert has to contend with weather, while an indoor performance has space constraints. Flying over people is a tricky task; one malfunction could send the machine plummeting into a crowd, resulting in bodily injury or worse. In the case of Drake’s concert, they fly solely around the performer, Aubrey himself.
Verity’s job for Drake required 200 autonomous drones that were assembled and shipped in less than 30 days. The company doesn’t tour with the artist, but it provides equipment that his team’s own operators can start and stop during performances. According to D’Andrea, the team made over 40 changes with Drake’s people to finalize the performance.
“Drake wanted the freedom to move around on stage and not worry about being fenced in,” he says. The drones needed to be elevated above him, and they couldn’t land on the stage and block his path. “There isn’t much space between Drake and the audience,” D’Andrea adds. “So we had to land the drones in between Drake and the audience.”
Verity’s drones are only active for a handful of songs, not the entire performance. (Verity provided The Verge with a ticket in order to see the drones perform live alongside Drake.) Their presence is a quiet one, wherein they hover as a little light show around the singer. From a distance, they look a bit like fireflies on a summer night — or perhaps the light flashing from an eager fan’s phone. Close up, it’s hard to tell what formation they’ve taken around the singer. They exit as quietly as they appear, and the show moves on.
On Drake’s current tour, drones — no matter how technologically impressive — are far from the flashiest trick on display. During different parts of the show, the stage transforms into an iPhone scrolling through Drake’s Instagram account, as well as a laser-lit basketball court, and a flying yellow Ferrari briefly hovers above the crowd at one point.
D’Andrea declined to comment on the cost of the drones at Drake’s show, though it’s worth noting its Cirque del Soleil show (in which the drones donned lamps) was roughly half a million. He says Verity hopes to expand its abilities beyond simple light shows. That may include costumes, or even the ability to safely fly around the audience. “I don’t know if drones are the future of entertainment, but I do think robotics and AI has a huge potential in live events,” he says.
“There isn’t really a lot of high tech in live events. We feel there’s a lot of opportunity there.”