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There’s a busy annual programme of events at the Amsterdam Arena, including international football fixtures and music festivals. Soon it will add another event to its calendar: later this year, the stadium will host the first-ever drone circus.

Amsterdam-based event company Fjuze recently launched a trailer for the event that they’re calling Air2015. It’s a thumping preview, full of Tron-like lights and computer-generated drones doing aerial stunts to a soundtrack that could have come from any blockbuster science fiction thriller.

“We won’t sell one ticket on this trailer,” says Klaas Rohde, laughing. It’s too abstract, too far out there, he says. Rohde is the brains behind the event – the circus ringmaster, if you will – and he says they’re working on a new trailer that will give people a more realistic idea of what the show will be like.

We’re going to have beautiful things with drones

And what, exactly, will it be like? Rohde points to the shows he’s inspired by. “I love the Cirque du Soleil shows, they’re doing a circus with a lot of lights and themes and spectacle. That’s an inspiration for sure,” he says. “I love the Blue Planet, Planet Earth documentaries of BBC, with the beautiful pictures. I love the Tron inspiration, and the combination of the beautiful pictures with the futuristic style. We’re inspired by a lot of things that are happening. We’re going to have beautiful things with drones and bring them in a theme with lights and music and projection as well.”

The drone display has been influenced by acts such as Cirque Soleil and nature documentaries such as The Blue Planet (Credit: Fjuze)

The idea of playing with drones was planted in Rohde’s mind nearly 20 years ago, when he was an intern for a television production company in Amsterdam. They wanted to film a segment about crop circles, but they didn’t have the budget to rent a helicopter, so Rohde went out and found the best radio-controlled helicopter pilot he could to fly a camera over the fields. “The pictures were unbelievable, and I had this feeling that I wanted to do something with this.”

Then, five years ago, Rohde helped put on a series of drive-in movies at the Amsterdam Arena – which is a typical modern football stadium with a retractable roof. “Then I thought, how cool would it be if you started flying [drones] indoors, in a controlled air space – there’s no wind.” Two weeks later he had gathered together as many pilots of radio-controlled helicopters and drones as he could find to test out the idea. The sight of so many drones in flight in the arena was stunning. “It was unbelievable, it was magic, seeing those planes flying so close to you. Sitting in the stadium, you’re higher than normally, so you were on the same level as the plane. And it worked really well.”

A drone can be a character

Now, Rohde is trying to orchestrate a bigger and more formal event: a choreographed show with lights and sounds and a plot. He’s not yet totally sure exactly how many drones will be in the air at once, “but I think over 100 drones will be attending the show”, he says.

In the show, the drones will be characters, they’ll have personalities. There will be drama, and humour and surprise. “You can change drones, you can make them look like Earth or land. You can rave, you can let them dance, you can interact with people. A drone can be a character.”

The organisers plan to have some 100 drones flying within the arena (Credit: Getty Images)

Some of the drones, he says, will be piloted by human pilots. But others will be controlled by computer. “I think, when we have a core with 50 drones or so, they will be controlled by a computer system, what we actually have to build right now. We’re working really hard on the controlling system, the measurement system, building the drones, thinking of choreography, and then going into the test phase.”

Because they’ll be flying their drones inside a closed arena, the show’s organisers won’t have to contend with any of the legal problems now facing drone operators in other walks of life. And the audience will be protected from possible drone collision by a net, above their head, Rohde says, but it will be dark and the net will be black, and most people won’t even notice it.

Drones are doing something we always dreamed of, they are flying

When I asked Rohde if he was worried about humans not being able to connect with a drone character, he said no. His reasoning was interesting. “Drones are doing something we always dreamed of, they are flying. And because they’re doing something we’ve never done before, they don’t have to look like humans. They can move and be funny and fast, and you can have, I think, a character in them.”

He wants people to feel the wind from the drones in their hair. “There will be a lot of new concepts in this show, and we’re already thinking about new concepts in our head while we’re brainstorming,” he says. “Our eye is in the sky. There is a new possibility of what’s going to happen.”

Rohde says he wants the audience to be able to feel the drones' movement in their hair (Credit: Fjuze)

Rohde sees his drone circus as the first of a new generation of entertainment. “I don’t think we’ll be the only one, more shows will arise in this theme,” he says.

But for now, his team is just trying to solve the complicated logistical problems that come from choreographing and piloting more than 100 drones in a relatively confined space.

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