When the sun sets across Europe, one nation stands out, shining bright at night: Belgium is the only country to illuminate all its highways. Now, a brand new concept tackles the notion of always-on, fixed street lamps.

While astronauts in orbit enjoy the spectacular view of our illuminated, artificial landscape and infrastructure, the actual wisdom of nocturnal lighting has been under discussion for years. Slowly, but surely, Belgium’s government is phasing out its system of streetlights.

The shift towards dark highways after sunset is primarily for economical and ecological reasons: The Walloon part of the country alone stands to save up to ten million Euros per year on its highway streetlighting power bill.

Nevertheless, decent street illumination not only makes roads safer to use and situations more transparent, but also gives pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers in sparsely populated regions a better sense of individual safety.

Fleetlight drones can be booked via smartphone app
The drone fleet notifies you via your smartphone.

Static energy guzzlers

In a way, the street lamp concept is as old as the city itself. After a period of gas-powered lights, back in the 19th century, most municipalities now rely on electricity. But is this concept still state-of-the-art? Do we really need a barrage of static light sources – whether anyone is around or not?

It’s a question British insurance corporation Direct Line and the Saatchi & Saatchi agency decided to explore. Together, they developed an exciting open source prototype, “Fleetlight” – a fleet of drones fitted with powerful LEDs. Users can “book” the flying lights via smartphone to make their journey home at night that little bit safer.

The versatile service lets you travel on foot, by bike, or by car: The drones will accompany you automatically. Bright beams illuminate the way and bathe your path in an eerie glow reminiscent of the aesthetics of iconic TV and movie classics like “E.T.” or “Stranger Things”.

Fleetlight drones light the way
Guidance from above: the drones light the way.

Drones light the way home at night

At the same time, this is no science fiction, but simply a service based on technology that is already shaping our everyday lives – and promises to play an increasingly important part in our future.

“Modern technologies allow insurers to focus more on prevention instead of compensation,” states Mark Evans, marketing director at Direct Line. “Since we would like to pioneer this trend, we’re always looking for innovative ideas that proactively improve people’s everyday lives.” According to the insurer, fall and winter, especially, go hand in hand with a 40 percent uptick in traffic accidents involving pedestrians.

“Each fleet has a lead drone that determines the formation of the other drones and also interacts with the user,” explains Richard Lewis, one of the concept’s developers. “So, the drones follow the user, no matter where he’s heading.” The fleet can accelerate up to 100 km/h – allowing the drones to keep up with motorized vehicles.

Fleetlight drones light the way for a jogger
The drones follow you, whether you are on foot or in a motorized vehicle.

Future tech

Accurate tracking at high speed remains a tricky technical challenge. Gary Howell is in charge of this particular field. He points out the drawbacks of satellite-controlled navigation, and a solution. “At such velocities, GPS simply isn’t powerful enough to ensure precise and safe flying. So, we decided to work with RTK (real-time kinematic) technologies instead. This method is suitable for much more precise flying and tracking – deviations from the path never exceed more than one to two centimeters.”

Admittedly, we shouldn’t expect to see entire cities lit up by drone fleets in the near future – at current flying times of 30 minutes max, the system simply doesn’t have the scope and scale for comprehensive coverage yet.

Still, “Fleetlight” underscores the sheer potential of new technologies for our urban future. We can definitely expect to see plenty of exciting applications in urbanism, logistics, transport, and infrastructure soon.

And to be honest: Who would have thought that the well-known, ubiquitous, basic streetlight would enjoy such a fascinating revival? Airborne, smart, networked – and pretty cool.