An autonomous flying swarm of 300 illuminated drones took to the evening sky above Burning Man last week, throwing the more than 70,000 people in attendance into awed silence. Set to live music by Dutch composer and pianist Joep Beving, the art piece, dubbed "Franchise Freedom," was based off the murmuration patterns of starlings.

"Franchise Freedom is inspired by the spectacle of starlings clustering together in massive swarms flying through the sky in thousands," Studio Drift commented on their website. "They create breathtaking aerial displays that are seemingly rehearsed, but are in fact natural cohesions of movement and flight. Each maneuver is completely integrated, and no bird works alone. When swarming they are powerful and dominate the sky."

The drone display at Burning Man 2018 was inspired by the flight patterns of starlings. The drone display at Burning Man 2018 was inspired by the flight patterns of starlings. (Photo: Ruprecht Studios via Vimeo)

To pull off the hypnotic grace of Franchise Freedom, Studio Drift studied and translated the patterns of starlings into a software algorithm that's embedded in each drone. Artists Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta then choreographed the drones, setting parameters, but allowing versatility so that every performance is subtly different from the last.

"Together with their unique movements, light plays an equally important role in Franchise Freedom," they add. "Each drone has a light source, and its intensity and color is influenced by the distance between it and other drones, emphasizing the density of the group."

Since "I, Robot" was the theme at this year's Burning Man, the addition of hundreds of drones lighting up the night sky was a fitting highlight.

"The show was simply magical, gave me goosebumps," wrote one viewer. "I wanted to cry how beautiful the performance was."

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

Drone ballet at Burning Man mesmerizes crowd
Backed by a live piano performance, hundreds of illuminated drones took to the sky to perform a beautiful aerial dance at Burning Man.