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No fireworks July 4th? Why drones will dazzle the sky

Many cities and businesses are now celebrating events with drone shows, which provide 'a story in the sky.'

SAN FRANCISCO – As the organizer of a major July Fourth event in downtown Los Angeles every year, Robert Gonzalez is keenly aware a crowd of 25,000 will expect a thrilling, innovative show in the entertainment mecca.

Gonzalez and his team running the Gloria Molina Grand Park took a big gamble a year ago, replacing the traditional fireworks display capping what’s billed as “the largest free Fourth of July celebration on the West Coast’’ with a drone show. The switch was made partly in pursuit of an invigorating new experience but also as a hedge against the wildfires that have beset the region in recent years.

Watching the crowd uncertain of how the drones would be received, Gonzalez was gratified by the reaction as the shapes formed in the air by the hundreds of lit flying objects drew looks of amazement.

“Everyone around me was gazing up in the air with their phones trying to capture the moment,’’ he said. “That made it worth it for me and made clear the decision that, ‘OK, I think this is where we’re headed now, and we’ll just continue improving on it.’’’

Los Angeles is among a growing number of municipalities and other entities – corporations like Disney, movie studios, sports leagues – incorporating drone shows into their holiday festivities and other events, whether alongside fireworks or instead of them.

Nashville, Tennessee, is combining both as part of its Let Freedom Sing celebration Thursday, as will the Kansas City Royals after their home game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Napa and Tahoe City, tourist destinations in California that have been threatened by wildfires, are opting for drones alone. The same goes for Salt Lake City, whose residents have expressed concerns about wildfire danger and air pollution. San Antonio, St. Louis and many other cities are putting on drone shows as well, with or without pyrotechnics.

An image of a bagpiper is created in the sky by 200 drones during a drone show at the Alameda County Fair on June 26, 2024, in Pleasanton, Calif.

'Basically just flying light bulbs'

Rick Boss, president of Sky Elements Drone Shows, said the 3½-year-old company’s business has grown by 60% over the past year, and he believes that also applies to the industry as a whole. After staging 12 shows on July Fourth and 44 around the holiday in 2023, Sky Elements is producing 21 and 68 this year, said Boss, adding that the Dallas-area firm puts on at least 50% of the retail shows nationally.

“It’s still relatively small,’’ Boss said of the industry, which began to take off in the U.S. shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic waned. “But it’s so novel and tells a story so well that people love it.’’

Boss said the drones, which measure about 12 inches by 12 inches, are “basically just flying light bulbs.’’

Romeo Watt, a crewmember with the Sky Elements Drones Shows company, carries a stack of drones following a drone show at the Alameda County Fair on June 26, 2024, in Pleasanton, Calif.

They’re programmed by designers who may spend 100 hours or more customizing each show, and a pilot lays them out the evening of an event, connects them to a computer and makes sure they follow their mission. Synced to music, the drones can form up to 20 shapes, images and messages over a 12-minute performance, seen best from within a quarter-mile and visible up to a couple of miles away, not nearly as far as fireworks.

Gonzalez said he heard some grumbling from fireworks fans after making the switch last year, “but the positive responses were overwhelming,’’ so it wasn’t a hard decision to bring the drones back this year. The park is increasing the number from 500 to 800, which should allow for more inventive and impressive images as they float and move in unison 400 feet in the air.

“With the drones we were giving a story in the sky with images, and we could get even more creative with the soundtrack,’’ Gonzalez said. “It’s like all your senses are involved – the sky, the sounds, the ambience, making it more enjoyable.’’

200 drones are laid out in a specific grid prior to a drone show at the Alameda County Fair on June 26, 2024, in Pleasanton, Calif.

When Mario and Diana Zamora brought their two daughters to the Alameda County fair last week in Pleasanton, California, a 40-mile drive southeast of San Francisco, they stayed for the 9:30 p.m. drone display. Their reward included the sight of a drone hula dancer shimmying her hips and a drone fisherman pulling a fish out of the water, among other images.

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“It was amazing. I loved it,’’ said Catalina Zamora, 7.

Her mother said she enjoyed it as well and appreciated the kid-friendly nature of the show.

“Children find this a little more interesting because it involves technology,’’ Diana Zamora said. “A lot of kids get scared by fireworks, but that doesn’t happen with this. Everybody wants to sit at the front to watch it.’’

Safety, lower environmental impact − and cool

Though not as spectacular as fireworks, drone shows have a cool and ingenious element to them and are likely to become even more captivating as the technology evolves and makes it cheaper to deploy a bigger fleet. The county fair shows used up to 200 drones, which were laid out on a nearby lawn about the size of a tennis court before rising into action for a 12-minute performance that cost $8,000 to $10,000 a night as part of an 18-night package.

Boss said the price for a single show starts at $15,000 and goes up depending on the complexity and the number of units. He recommends at least 200 drones for a large gathering. The average for a Sky Elements performance is 300, he said, typically costing $45,000 all included.

An image of a fisherman is created in the sky at a drone show at the Alameda County Fair on June 26, 2024, in Pleasanton, Calif.

Though costs have been dropping, they’re still usually higher than for a large fireworks production, which averages about $1,000 a minute and usually lasts about 20 minutes. That’s almost twice as long as the drones can go before their batteries run out.

But drones have significant advantages over pyrotechnics, high among them safety and a much lower environmental impact. They don’t leave debris or smoke behind or risk sparking a fire, and they buzz lightly instead of explode, making them more suitable for pets and people who are sensitive to noise or may have post-traumatic stress disorder.

When Salt Lake City switched from fireworks to drones in 2023 out of safety and environmental concerns, residents embraced the move, said Lynze Twede, the city’s manager of public lands events.

“It was widely accepted by everybody who attended,’’ said Twede, adding that a local company is putting on a longer show this year. “And most people agree the cool thing about drones is they can be different every year. Unlike a fireworks show that’s pretty much the same every year, the technology behind drones allows us to have very unique shows that differ for every show.’’

Drones are aligned in a specific grid at the Alameda County Fair on June 26, 2024, in Pleasanton, Calif,

Twede and Gonzalez said the ancillary costs of fireworks – such as required permits, equipment to haul the heavy shells, and firefighters standing by – made the total expenditure for either type of performance comparable.

More cities give drones a shot, but not everyone is a fan

It’s not only large cities that can afford to get into the drone act. Napa, population 78,000, is rolling out its first Fourth of July drone show, which Mayor Scott Sedgley said “aligns perfectly with our climate action initiatives.’’

Boulder, Colorado, took that same step in 2023 – when the push toward drones started to take hold across the nation – ditching fireworks in part because of “increased fire danger fueled by climate change,’’ communication manager Shannon Aulabaugh said via e-mail.

Flagstaff, Arizona, surrounded by nearly 2 million acres of national forest and amid summer fire restrictions, discarded fireworks years ago. Unable to put on a drone show because its outdoor events site is too close to the airport to get FAA clearance, the city of 80,000 went last year with a laser-light show that Parks and Recreation assistant director Amy Hagin said evoked “some cool oohs and ahhs.’’

Crewmembers with Sky Elements Drone Shows install batteries in 200 drones at the Alameda County Fairgrounds on June 26, 2024, in Pleasanton, Calif.,

Diverging from the norm is not always welcome. When officials in Galveston, Texas, replaced their Fourth of July fireworks with drones for environmental reasons in 2022, the switch and technical problems that delayed the show’s start left some locals close to “open revolt,’’ according to the Galveston County Daily News.

Fireworks returned the next year and are on tap for this year's holiday as well.

Boss said he asks organizers early on, “‘Are you sure your community is ready to replace pyrotechnics?’ If there’s not a barrier to fireworks, I recommend they do both. Give them a new element and then maybe over time it becomes just a drone show.’’

It will be a while before that happens on a large scale, according to Boss, who noted there will be more than 300 official fireworks shows in Texas alone this week. That’s 4½ times the number of drone performances Sky Elements is putting on nationwide.

'The wave of the future in a way'

Pyrotechnics, especially in the hands of amateurs, carry significant risks. According to the National Fire Protection Association, fireworks ignited more than 31,000 fires in 2022 – the most recent year for which figures are available – resulting in six people being killed and 44 injured, and causing $109 million in direct property damage.

Of those blazes, 85% were of the brush, grass or forest variety, the type that have decimated vast areas of the western United States, especially California, in recent years. For reasons that include personal safety and fire prevention, the NFPA website warns, “the only safe way to view fireworks is to attend a professional show.’’

A horse racing logo is displayed in the sky with the use of 200 drones during a show at the Alameda County Fair on June 26, 2024, in Pleasanton, Calif.

The organization doesn’t have a breakdown of the percentage of fires sparked by professional shows compared with regular folks, but research director Birgitte Messerschmidt noted firework-caused blazes nearly doubled – from 18,810 in 2019 to 35,668 in 2020 – as the pandemic brought shutdowns.

“With the pandemic we canceled the professional fireworks,’’ she said. “People did their own, so I think the data do speak to the risk of people doing their own fireworks shows.’’

Crewmembers with Sky Elements Drone Shows do an “arms check” to ensure all of the 200 drones’ rotors are functioning properly prior to a drone show at the Alameda County Fair on June 26, 2024, in Pleasanton, Calif.

Despite the dangers, those are not going away. Fireworks, especially on the Fourth of July, have been around for centuries and remain hugely popular. They just have company now among the celebratory options in a warming world.

“I think drones are the wave of the future in a way,’’ Gonzalez said. “And we wanted to be on the forefront of this new, innovative way of showcasing celebrations and community gatherings.’’

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