Updated Jul 4, 2022 - Technology

Fireworks are out, drone shows are in this Fourth of July

Lighted drones in an eagle formation in the night sky.
Tusayan, Arizona last year celebrated July 4 with its first-ever drone show. Photo courtesy Hireuavpro.com

Colorfully lit drones will be flying in patriotic formations over cities and towns across the U.S. this July 4th as a newfangled alternative to fireworks — particularly in the bone-dry West, where sparks can cause catastrophic wildfires.

Why it matters: Finally, there's an appealing alternative to traditional pyrotechnics, which critics have been hating for years (due to noise, pollution, injuries, and environmental harm).

  • Among some fireworks fans, sentimental attachment is being supplanted by pragmatic concerns: In Douglas County, Colorado, for instance, last December's holiday fireworks caused grass fires at three launch sites.

Driving the news: As communities ban fireworks because of drought, a small but growing number are turning to nighttime drone shows as the flagship entertainment for Independence Day.

  • Demand is so high that the handful of companies that operate drone lights shows say they're completely booked — and have been for months, leaving lots of late-to-the-table municipalities out of luck this year.
  • "We've fielded hundreds of requests that we, unfortunately, can't take," said Graham Hill, founder and CEO of Hireuavpro.com, which makes shows of 10-12 minutes using anywhere from 100 drones ("the entry-level") to 500.
  • Demand has been "exponentially larger than last year," he told Axios. "If we’re tracking the evolution of this, I just don’t think most communities knew this was a viable option last year. "

After rare winter wildfires devastated Boulder County, Colorado, several Denver-area towns moved quickly to hire Hill's company for July 4th.

  • One of them — Parker, Colorado — said in a statement that while it "recognized the beloved tradition" of fireworks, it's trying a drone light show as a "one-year trial" for 2022.
  • Parker described the show as "a new and innovative finale experience" that will last 12 minutes and "feature multiple designs and choreographed movements from a fleet of drones set to patriotic music."

Among the places switching to drone shows this year: Galveston, Texas; North Lake Tahoe, Calif.; Imperial Beach, Calif., and Castle Pines, Colo.

  • While drones are more expensive than fireworks — typically starting at $25,000 compared to as little as $2,000 for a small-town fireworks show — they're billed as safer, cleaner, and more customizable.

Between the lines: For most of the year, drone light show companies cater to corporate clients and wealthy individuals — putting everything from corporate logos and QR codes to cartoon characters into motion in the sky.

For July 4th, shows feature traditional iconography: Drones might fly into the shape of the Statue of Liberty, Old Glory, and the Liberty Bell.

  • They can even simulate a fireworks display.
  • "What people can expect is 10 different formations that are all going to be animated, that can all light up and come together," says Hill.
  • "We’ve done Tetris boards in the sky, and Super Mario in the sky," he said. The effect is "like a big Lite-Brite — a lot of different light pixels coming around and moving into formation."

The big picture: The shift away from fireworks is worldwide: India and China — widely billed as the birthplace of fireworksare also cracking down on their use. Shanghai's 2020 New Year's celebration included a 2,000-drone display.

  • Intel used to be the leader in aerial drone displays with its Shooting Star System, which provided an early demonstration of the technology at the opening ceremony for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Intel recently sold the division that staged drone shows.)

What they're saying: "Our goal ... is to supersede fireworks," John Hopkins, co-founder of the British drone show company Celestial, told Reuters.

  • "We love fireworks, but they blow things up, they're single-use, they make things catch on fire and they scare animals."

The other side: The fireworks industry reaped $262 million in revenue from public displays and $2.2 billion from consumer purchases in 2021, per the American Pyrotechnics Association.

  • Drones aren't yet a serious threat to the industry, the group's executive director, Julie Heckman, told Reuters — and they lack the "multisensory" experience (the smoke smell, the explosive crackle) and they're "pretty" but "kind of boring," she said.

The bottom line: Thanks in part to climate change, safety concerns have vaulted to the top of the list of problems with fireworks — virtually ensuring that drone shows will become a modern July 4th tradition.

  • Says Hill, "With drones, a client can tell a story during a show, as opposed to just kind of blowing things up."
Drones in the shape of an American flag light up the sky on July 4th.
Tusayan, Arizona, surrounded by the Kaibab National Forest, eschews fireworks but welcomes drones. Photo courtesy Hireuavpro.com
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