On a recent midnight, hundreds of drones took off above Rowan University’s West Campus in tightly synchronized formation, their LED bellies glowing as they formed color-changing patterns across the sky. Scattered on the athletic fields under the buzzing quadcopters, a handful of spectators cheered.
It was the largest ever demonstration of the proprietary swarm technology developed by the Philadelphia-based company Verge Aero, a startup that organizes complex aerial light shows for audiences around the world. (Watch the video here.)
Except this time, they had returned to their home territory.
Since starting their business in 2016, three former Rowan University engineering students, Tony Samaritano ’12, ’18, Chris Franzwa ’13 and Anthony Merlino ’14, have used the University’s West Campus as a testing ground for their drone light shows.
“They’re like high-tech fireworks,” Samaritan said. “We can dynamically build shapes in the sky and spell logos, and we do it for some of the biggest names in the world.”
When Joe Biden celebrated his presidential victory on the Wilmington waterfront on November 7, 2020, the fireworks display included 200 drones piloted by Verge Aero. They have attended festivals including Burning Man in Nevada and Carnaval in Mexico, as well as concerts and performances hosted by well-known companies.
After years of programming the system’s backend, Verge Aero typically performs shows with 200 drones that require only a small crew.
But organizing hundreds and hundreds of drones for the Rowan test flight took a lot of hands.
To find qualified volunteers, Samaritan contacted the president of the student club he founded in Rowan in 2012: the Rowan Robotics and Automation Society. President Jack Campanella also did an internship with Verge Aero this summer and brought his club members to help the Verge Aero team.
“They are really great people who, at one point, were in the same position as us,” Campanella said.
The three alumni credit their experiences in Rowan with their work today. Samaritan met with his co-founders through the engineering program. Together, they built the technology that allows Verge Aero to fly complex shows with just a few hours of installation.
“Without Rowan, I wouldn’t have had the security of being able to build a company from scratch,” Samaritan said.
“I found my passion for engineering here,” added Franzwa. “I think of a lot of schools where you’re sitting in a lecture hall full of hundreds of people and you’re struggling to get lab time. Here I was able to work as much as I wanted ”.
Merlin said he enjoyed Rowan’s hands-on clinical projects that give students exposure to real-world projects.
“The theory is great, but ultimately the thing that builds companies is practical and practical stuff,” Merlino said.
The engineers stayed in contact with two Rowan faculty members who were instrumental in their training: Dr. Robi Polikar, who heads the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Dr. John Schmalzel, one of the founding professors of the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineeringwhich this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.
“To be able to see that they took a concept that started as a course project while they were students in our program and built it, literally from scratch, one drone at a time is immense pride for us,” he said. Polikar, “and represents the best of what our program offers”.