Drone show takes off as Celestial sets its sights as an “ongoing attraction”

Brendan Rees

The British firm behind the spectacular drone show in Docklands could have a permanent presence in the precinct, with its co-founder Tony Martin admitting he had been “amazed” by its sights and surrounds.

“We would love to be an ongoing attraction in Docklands,” Mr Martin told Docklands News.

His company, Celestial, has wowed crowds with a colourful 350-strong drone swarm display over Victoria Harbour.

“We want to do amazing things in Australia, and Melbourne is going to be a springboard for all of our business in the Asia Pacific region.”

“We’re definitely not a fly-in fly-out business … we’re going to be building a really robust business here and hopefully if we can make it happen, we’ll be based in Docklands.”

The success of the drone show in lighting up the Docklands skyline – which featured a beautiful mix of First Nations imagery, contemporary poetry, and an especially-commissioned piece of music – saw the displays extended to February 5.

The spectacle, which included pop-up street performances, led to a spike in pedestrian activity with night-time numbers up 138 per cent on pre-COVID levels, City of Melbourne data showed.

“We had 6000 people turn up which was great,” Mr Martin said of a Monday night in January.

“It’s really stimulated a lot of interest, and a lot of positive outcomes for the area.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for organisers who were forced to scrap the drone show two days before its much-anticipated debut on New Year’s Eve after experiencing the “knock-on effects” of the global supply chain crisis sparked by the Omicron wave.

Mr Martin said a delay in key equipment such as batteries being shipped to Australia had hampered efforts to train their Australian drone pilots while also meeting the safety approvals from aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority [CASA].   

“We heard that we were going to get a huge number of batteries that were going to be shipped with the drones that we brought over to Melbourne [but] right at the last minute our supplier said, ‘okay now we’re going to have to ship the batteries separately’,” he said.

“What should have cost us around $6000 ended up costing us $100,000 to ship the batteries over and we could not get those batteries before December 30.”

“You can imagine how frustrating that was, how costly it was. All we can do is apologise for real systems that were outside of our control.”

“Omicron took everybody by surprise that once again, there was a shock to the travel system and freight system and that we just experienced the knock-on effect of that, and it cost us an absolute fortune.”

CASA remotely piloted aircraft systems inspector Darren McGrath said public safety was the authority’s top priority, particularly when the show was one of the biggest events of its type in Australian skies.

“We conduct a number of checks to ensure the display complies with our safety regulations, including assessing the applicant’s risk assessments and dress rehearsal before the event,” Mr McGrath said.

Asked whether CASA had raised safety concerns over the drone show in December, CASA said in a statement that “after detailed safety checks” by CASA, the “operator’s application was approved on January 12, 2022.”

“CASA worked with the chief remote pilot to ensure all safety risks were considered and mitigated,” it said.

“The checks to gain the required approvals are part of CASA’s remit to regulate aviation safety, ensuring safe and legal drone operations that protect those watching from the ground and also other aircraft in the air.”

Docklands Chamber of Commerce executive officer Shane Wylie said while it was disappointing the New Year’s Eve launch had been scratched, the aerial display had been a “very welcome addition” to the precinct.

“Obviously, we were hoping for and expecting it to begin on New Year’s Eve but even with the delay it’s clearly shown that Docklands needs permanent activation of the waterways,” he said.

 

The evening buzz and excitement of the drone show – which has captivated all who have seen it – has resulted in organic crowds exceeding 5000 people enjoying the vista, restaurants and bars of Docklands.

 

“Yes, there have been teething problems with the original launch being delayed and then several nightly shows cancelled at the last minute. That’s been unfortunate as it has left a sour taste in some people’s mouth.”

“On one particular night the show was cancelled at 9.27pm with more than 5000 people in attendance awaiting their arrival. That simply doesn’t help Docklands in the long term as those people went home propagating the long-held views that Docklands is not worth the effort to come and visit.”

“But overall, the experience and premise behind long term activation of the harbour bringing in organic crowds is certainly something the chamber would be championing moving forward.”

A Docklands Representative Group (DRG) spokesperson said residents felt the large-scale drone display had created a “positive vibe” in Docklands with the family-friendly atmosphere in “direct contrast to the usual loads of drunken party boats which disembark” at Victoria Harbour.

“There were some comments about ‘claiming back the community space’ from these groups as the harbour has become a no-go zone when party boats return from their trips,” the spokesperson said, adding the presence of security had also “played a key role in making everyone feel safe.”

“The feeling is that on-site security is what is needed to redress the party boat situation – to stop the anti-social behaviour that happens,” the spokesperson said which included public drinking and public urination.

“The biggest contribution of the drone display is what it shows to our decision makers, specifically that large numbers of people, families, young people, residents and visitors can all really enjoy Docklands without alcohol being the drawcard.”

However, the spokesperson said residents felt a little let down by the “20th century sound system” in reference to the music that was set to the drone swarm.

“How ironic to have a 21st century drone show and a 20th century sound system,” residents said. “Someone should tell organisers about apps.”

The DRG spokesperson also said some residents suggested that 10.30pm shows on Monday and Tuesday were too late “and maybe not needed”.

“Wind and cancellations were also mentioned – and the fact that Docklands is known for its blustery weather.”

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the event had reignited the precinct with more people flocking to Docklands during one weekend in January than before the pandemic •

“The first drone show generated the second highest night-time activity in Docklands over the past year, only behind New Year’s Eve,” she said.

“It’s clear that Victorians are keen to get out and explore their wonderful city, and the more people we attract to Docklands, the more business our hard-working traders can get.”

Meanwhile, Mr Martin said he was excited by the prospect of setting up a permanent base in Melbourne and creating more opportunities for Docklands.

“It needs something that draws people over and over again – that’s what we’re going for,” he said.

“We’ve been staying in Docklands for the entire six weeks that we’ve been here, and we’ve walked around, and we’re just amazed by it. We’re like why are there not more people here? It’s really amazing.”

Celestial, which delivered Edinburgh’s 2020 New Year drone display, as well as a drone art creation for Amnesty International’s 60th anniversary, will host a drone show for the Adelaide Fringe festival in late February.

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