Are Drone Light Shows Replacing Fireworks Displays?

As the country gears up for Independence Day, more and more cities are ditching fireworks for drones.

drone light show fireworks

Patriotic drones dominate the skies in Blue Ash, Ohio, at a 2021 July 4 celebration. [Credit: Verge Aero]

That bombastic neighborhood Fourth of July fireworks display you saw last year may have been your last. Increasingly, cities and towns across the U.S. are ditching pyrotechnics in favor of a colorful alternative. 

The first drone light show took place in 2012 in the skies of Linz, Austria, dazzling the crowd with what was, at the time, something out of science fiction. Since then, they’ve popped up just about everywhere, from America's Got Talent to the Super Bowl.

And now, they’re becoming a substitute for fireworks as companies such as Verge Aero and SkyMagic begin to grow.

Across the U.S.—but particularly in Western states like Colorado, California, Iowa, and New Mexico—many local fireworks displays are being canned in favor of drones, a trend that began in earnest last year. So, why are so many towns making the switch? And what’s stopping the rest from following suit?

Drones Are Safer, Greener, and Quieter—and Cooler

There’s a reason drone light shows are becoming especially popular in the West. By now, if you live on the U.S. East or West Coasts, you’ve probably been accosted by wildfire smoke. The blazes are increasing in frequency and intensity as climate change worsens. And fireworks, if you couldn’t imply from their name, cause fires—more than you might think.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, debris from colorful explosions causes thousands of fires every year. And as wildfires become more severe, more states, particularly in the West, have implemented fire restrictions.

That’s what triggered a handful of California towns to ditch fireworks for drones last year. Sydney, Australia, known for its grandiose fireworks display, is considering doing the same due to the risk of bushfires. And fire danger is now top of mind for many U.S. cities as July 4 nears.

In addition to reducing the risk of fires, drone light shows present a safer alternative for the folks behind the curtain. Fireworks injured more than 10,000 people last year because they can accidentally erupt while on the ground. Drones can’t. And since light shows are required to keep the ground below the show clear, there’s no risk of a drone falling from the sky into the crowd.

Drones are also less intrusive, creating only a light buzzing noise. Fireworks, on the other hand, can rupture your eardrum if you’re standing close enough. That’s a dealbreaker for some families with animals, small children, or other people who are sensitive to noise.

But perhaps the biggest reason for the switch to drones is that they’re thought to be greener. Besides starting fires, firework smoke leaves behind a trail of harmful chemicals and is considered a pollutant. In fact, China and India have restricted the use of fireworks for exactly that reason.

Drones are also a reusable option, capable of flying potentially hundreds of shows before they even require maintenance. That’s a huge benefit to the environment—and to the companies paying to put on these performances.

At the end of the day, though, some cities are likely switching to drones simply because they’re cooler. That’s not to say that fireworks aren’t cool. But drones allow for more creativity, with the ability to synchronize lights to music and recreate complex images in the sky.

But Not So Fast…

LED-laden drones can create a true spectacle while reducing some of the risks associated with fireworks. But these shows have drawbacks of their own.

The biggest is cost. Several factors can influence the asking price for a drone display, including the number of drones, their battery life, the show’s duration, temperature, and regulatory approvals. A small drone show might cost $20,000. But larger shows can climb to well over six figures, with some costing nearly half a million. A fireworks display, by comparison, typically costs less than $7,000.

FAA restrictions can also throw a wrench in your drone light show plans. According to the agency, the events typically require an FAA exemption to the rule limiting drone operations to a single aircraft, and that can take a while to obtain. An additional waiver is required when flying in congested airspace, such as near airports.

The agency reviews drone show applications thoroughly, evaluating safety procedures—such as in the event of an aircraft getting too close for comfort—operator guidelines and the software controlling the drone, among other things. Operators must also coordinate with local law enforcement and city officials.

The FAA also restricts drone displays during certain weather events, like heavy cloud cover. It requires three sm of visibility in order to fly, and operators cannot fly 2,000 feet horizontally or 500 feet below clouds. Altitude is also restricted to 400 feet above the ground (unless the operator has a waiver), which can hamper visibility.

The FAA does all of this for safety. But even after getting the agency’s green light, there are other concerns. Radio frequency or magnetic interference, for example, could cause one or multiple aircraft to fail during the show. GPS interference is the likely culprit of a drone debacle in Perth, Australia, last year.

And battery life can place a cap on flight time—or it could require the operator to purchase more batteries and “hot swap” them during the show.

Then there’s the issue of time. The more complex the show, the longer it takes to coordinate the drones the way you want them—a simple drone display can be as complex as a massive fireworks extravaganza. And as we all know, time equals money. 

Still, don’t be surprised to see a drone display light up a July 4th event near you.

Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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