Drones fall from the sky during failed performance in Zhengzhou

Society & Culture

Flashy drone light shows have replaced fireworks and created a new market for nighttime advertising in the sky, but it can be scary when the drones malfunction.

Drones drop out of the sky in Zhengzhou. Image from Weibo.

A recent drone light show went terribly wrong in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou when a fleet of brightly lit flying machines started raining down from the sky, sending thousands of panicked spectators scampering for cover.

The incident occurred last week during a night event organized by a shopping complex in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. A light show powered by roughly 200 computer-controlled drones was advertised as a celebration of China’s National Day holiday, which started on October 1.

The show began smoothly with a swarm of quadcopters, lit up with blue lights, rising into the sky and forming the name of the shopping center. But a few minutes later, dozens of them suddenly broke formation and plummeted to the ground.

In videos (in Chinese) shared on social media, viewers can be seen running away from the falling drones and looking for cover while screaming in terror. Some clips from the event show the out-of-control drones smashing into cars on the streets.

The China Vibe.

Subscribe to The China Vibe, our society and culture newsletter, to get a free weekly roundup of the most interesting stories from China.

When talking to local broadcaster Henan TV, a witness said (in Chinese) that about 5,000 people, many of them children, were at the scene. Miraculously, nobody was hurt, according to the Beijing News (in Chinese).

Initially, organizers of the display blamed a competing drone company, alleging that their rival manufactured an “ill-intentioned signal inference” to sabotage the performance. But later, the shopping complex told (in Chinese) local police that the issue might have been caused by “operation errors” on its end. 

Hailed as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional fireworks, drone light shows are having a big moment in China, as businesses and local governments use them for promotional campaigns and celebrations. Last month, when Mèng Wǎnzhōu 孟晚舟, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecom giant Huawei, landed in Shenzhen after more than 1,000 days on bail awaiting extradition charges in Canada, local officials employed 300 drones for an extravagant display in the sky, which included a message that read, “Wanzhou has returned home, the motherland is strong and formidable.”

But flying over people is a tricky task, and the incident in Zhengzhou wasn’t the first instance of things getting out of hand at a drone light show. In January, during the rehearsal of a performance organized by a shopping mall in Chongqing, a fleet of nearly 100 drones crashed into a building (in Chinese) due to a technical glitch.