If the Tech drone show amazed you at Carol of Lights, here’s a look at how it came together and how it almost did not happen

2023 drone show and Carol of Lights in Lubbock, Texas

(Image above, courtesy of Texas Tech)

The crowning moment in the celebration of Texas Tech’s 100th birthday was a first for Lubbock – a full-length choreographed drone show during the 65th Carol of Lights.

It got rave reviews. And it nearly failed to happen.

Drones can only fly when the sustained winds are less than 20 miles per hour – gusts under 30. Earlier on Dec. 2, the day of the event, the highest gust hit 61 miles per hour as measured by the National Weather Service in Lubbock.

That’s a show stopper.

Five years of planning could have just blown away, but the winds subsided, and the drones painted their fleeting portraits onto the night sky over the celebration below on campus, said Blayne Beal, Texas Tech’s director of centennial coordination, who shared his favorite image.

“The Masked Rider on Rudolph was just so fun – and how his legs moved to make it look like he was racing across the sky was really fun,” Beal said.

Beal did not disclose the show’s exact cost but said, “This was way in the six figures.”

Not one event, but 40

“It was a year-long celebration that was five years in the planning.” Beal said. “We kicked it off a year ago at the Carol of Lights. We ended it this year with the Carol of Lights.”

Between the Carols there were 40 events. The Goin’ Band from Raiderland played in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Big Tex did a spiel for Texas Tech at the Texas State Fair. Tech made a special presentation at the State Capitol. And the university announced an ambitious, if not audacious, goal of donating a million hours of community service.

“We are very, very close,” Beal said of the million hours. “In fact, we should have a really exciting announcement here in the next week or so.”

“The intentions were to engage every single alumni, every single student, every single faculty member, every single staff member in some way,” Beal said. “Everything has gone off better than we could have expected.”

Carol of Lights 2023

This was the second year for fireworks at the Carol of Lights.

“We really needed to go out with the bang, for lack of a better analogy,” Beal said. “We wanted to leave people with a wow factor.”

“We wanted to raise the bar for what Texas Tech is capable of. We wanted people to walk away and go, ‘I didn’t know Texas Tech could do this.’”

Even before the drones, the performers included Cirque with “dazzling aerial artistry,” Lost Wax, Annie Chalex Boyle, Mariachi Los Matadores and the Texas Tech University combined choirs.

The Carol of Lights page online said, “When the more than 25,000 Christmas lights are illuminated, Texas Tech will symbolically usher in its second century of service and officially close the year-long Centennial celebration.”

“This year, I wanted to incorporate a drone show,” Beal said. “But I wanted to do it in a time when we could maximize the amount of people that were there.”

He said last year, 25,000 people showed up for the Carol of Lights.

“We knew we would have a large crowd,” he said.

Planning the drones

A big drone show needs a big sponsor.

Coca-Cola really stepped up, Beal said. He mentioned Coca-Cola seven times without ever being asked. Not only did Coca-Cola agree to be sponsor of the centennial celebration, it paid for the drone show.

“We have had a continual contractual relationship with the Coca-Cola Company for 100 years. It’s our longest university contract, and that’s really special,” Beal said.

Next, he needed to find a drone company – Sky Elements Drones of North Richland Hills.

Beal spent time with the company’s designers building something called a white dot rendering. This simplified rendering of drones in the sky displays on a computer screen. From there, it animates to simulate how the drones move.

“After the white dot process, they go to a full-color animation,” Beal said. “Then you see all the dots have colors, and then as lights twinkle or they fade, all the true animation comes to that.”

“You have a full animated version of this show, before you see it.”

Next was choosing the aerial artwork.

2023 drone show and Carol of Lights in Lubbock, Texas
Image courtesy of Texas Tech

“We wanted to create our spirit elements,” Beal said – Wreck ‘Em Tech, Raider Power, Guns Up shooting a snowflake, Raider Red in a Santa hat, Tech’s centennial logo, and the Masked Rider – to name a few.

Beal wanted the Masked Rider to ride across the sky. But the horse is black, and the sky is dark.

“The element – it just didn’t pop the way I was expecting it to. And then we were like, ‘Wait a second. We could do Rudolph,’” Beal said. “We’re like, ‘Why didn’t we think of this in the beginning?’ Because it was really cool.”

Beal said 200 drones would be your average show. Texas Tech commissioned 400 drones.

Safety and security

Tech set up a fly zone – roughly 25 or 30 yards long and the same distance across. There’s an additional 25 or 30 yards around the fly zone that Beal described as a red box.

“We positioned security on the ground that kind of marked that outer red box,” Beal said. “That outer red box is just in the case of, let’s say, there’s a massive wind gust or something like that.”

If a drone falls out of formation and hits the ground, no one should be in that area. LubbockLights.com asked Beal if a clever fan could have seen a practice run before the actual show?

“No, there was no practice run,” he said. “The drone company actually didn’t arrive in Lubbock until Saturday.”

The reaction

Texas Tech posted images on Facebook after the show, to which Barbara Grubb Medley reacted, “The drone light show was absolutely amazing!”

David Jay Miller agreed, commenting, “The drone light show was definitely worth the drive from Fort Worth. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.” And Connie Gardner Monk said, “Awesome show of lights! The drones were great!”

Gary Abshire disagreed and commented, “Glitzed up too much. Keep it West Texas traditional.”

Most of the comments were positive, if not high praise. Beal described the response as unreal.

“People seem to be pretty well impressed,” Beal said. “The amount of emails and phone calls from people has just, you know, certainly made it all very, very worth it.”

A prior drone show

Technically, there was already a drone show in Lubbock, Beal said. During the Tech vs. TCU game, there were 200 drones displaying three images. It lasted 45 seconds, he said.

“But this is the first full show from start to finish that’s choreographed,” Beal explained.

More drone shows to come

Beal believes drone shows are the future of entertainment.

“These shows are only going to get more affordable as time goes along,” Beal speculated. Thinking about the occasional droughts in West Texas, Beal believes a drone show could step in when fireworks pose too much fire danger.

“You know you can do all the things that you do with the drone that you can do with fireworks and tunes — setting it to music,” Beal said.

People love the innovation, he said.

Author: James Clark- James Clark is the associate editor of Lubbock Lights. He worked in radio, television and digital media for a combined total of more than 30 years. He was Director of Digital News Content at KAMC, KLBK and EverythingLubbock.com for nearly 10 years.