Nation

The Rise of Drone Shows in July Fourth Celebrations

7 Mins read

Robert Gonzalez, the organizer of a major July Fourth event in downtown Los Angeles, is acutely aware that a crowd of 25,000 will expect a thrilling and innovative show in the entertainment hub. Gonzalez and his team at Gloria Molina Grand Park took a significant risk last year by replacing the traditional fireworks display, which caps what is billed as “the largest free Fourth of July celebration on the West Coast,” with a drone show. This change of drone shows was made not only to provide an invigorating new experience but also as a precaution against the wildfires that have plagued the region in recent years.

Gonzalez recalls watching the crowd, uncertain of how the drones would be received. However, he 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.’”

The Growing Popularity of Drone Shows

Los Angeles is among a growing number of municipalities and other entities—such as corporations like Disney, movie studios, and sports leagues—incorporating drone shows into their holiday festivities and other events. These drone shows are often used alongside or instead of traditional fireworks. Nashville, Tennessee, for instance, is combining both as part of its Let Freedom Sing celebration, as will the Kansas City Royals after their home game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

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

Sky Elements Drone Shows: A Leader in the Industry

Rick Boss, president of Sky Elements Drone Shows, reports that his company’s business has grown by 60% over the past year, a trend he believes 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. Boss adds that the Dallas-area firm handles 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 explains that the drones, measuring about 12 inches by 12 inches, are “basically just flying light bulbs.” Designers, who may spend 100 hours or more customizing each show, program these drones. A pilot lays them out on the evening of an event, connects them to a computer, and ensures they follow their mission. Synced to music, the drones can form up to 20 shapes, images, and messages over a 12-minute performance. These are best seen from within a quarter-mile and visible up to a couple of miles away, though not nearly as far as fireworks.

Positive Reception and Increased Investment

Gonzalez admits that he heard some grumbling from fireworks fans after making the switch last year, “but the positive responses were overwhelming,” making it an easy decision to bring the drones back this year. The park is increasing the number of drones 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 ambiance, making it more enjoyable.”

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.

“It was amazing. I loved it,” said Catalina Zamora, 7. Her mother also enjoyed it 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, Environmental Impact, and Cost Considerations

Drone shows have a cool and inventive element that is expected to become even more captivating as technology advances and makes it more affordable to deploy a bigger fleet, even though they are not as spectacular as fireworks. Up to 200 drones were employed in the county fair presentations; they were arranged on a nearby tennis court-sized lawn and then launched into action for a 12-minute performance, which cost between $8,000 and $10,000 per night for 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, with the average for a Sky Elements performance being 300 drones, typically costing $45,000 all included.

Even though prices have been declining, they are typically still more than those of a huge fireworks show, which typically lasts for 20 minutes and costs $1,000 on average each minute. That is about twice the amount of time the drones can operate before running out of battery.

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

When Salt Lake City switched from fireworks to drones in 2023 due to 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,” Twede said, 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.”

Twede and Gonzalez pointed out that the entire cost for either kind of performance was similar due to the ancillary costs associated with fireworks, such as the necessary permissions, the equipment needed to transport the large shells, and the firefighters on standby.

Smaller Cities Embracing Drone Shows

It’s not only large cities that can afford to get into the drone act. Napa, with a population of 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 partly because of “increased fire danger fueled by climate change,” communication manager Shannon Aulabaugh said via email.

Years ago, Flagstaff, Arizona, which is encircled by over two million acres of national forest and faces summer fire restrictions, threw away its pyrotechnics. The 80,000-person city defied FAA approval to host an outdoor drone show, so instead it debuted a laser light show last year that, according to Parks and Recreation assistant director Amy Hagin, generated “some cool oohs and ahhs.”

Challenges and Resistance to Change

Breaking the mold isn’t always a good thing. According to the Galveston County Daily News, some residents were on the verge of an “open revolt” when officials in Galveston, Texas, replaced their Fourth of July fireworks with drones in 2022 due to environmental concerns. The move was complicated by technical issues that caused the show’s start to be delayed. The next year, fireworks made a comeback, and they are scheduled for this holiday as well.

Organizers were questioned early on, according to Boss, “Are you sure your community is ready to replace pyrotechnics?” I suggest they do both if they are not restricted from using fireworks. If you add something new, it can eventually just become a drone show.

The Future of Celebratory Displays

Boss said there would be over 300 official fireworks performances in Texas alone this week, so it will be some time before that occurs on a big scale. That is four and a half times as many drone shows as Sky Elements does all over the country.

Pyrotechnics are dangerous, especially when used by amateurs. The most recent year for which data are available, 2022, saw more than 31,000 fires started by pyrotechnics, according to the National Fire Protection Association. This resulted in $109 million in direct property damage, six fatalities, and 44 injuries. Of those fires, eighty-five percent were of the brush, grass, or forest variety—the same kind that has recently devastated large swaths of the western United States, particularly California. The NFPA website cautions that “the only safe way to view fireworks is to attend a professional show,” among other reasons for your safety and the avoidance of fires.

The percentage of fires started by professional displays compared to those started by common people is not broken down by the organization, but research head Birgitte Messerschmidt noticed that when the pandemic prompted shutdowns, the number of fires caused by fireworks nearly doubled, from 18,810 in 2019 to 35,668 in 2020. “We canceled the professional fireworks due to the pandemic,” she stated. “I believe the data does speak to the risk of people doing their own fireworks shows because people did their own.”

The dangers notwithstanding, fireworks are here to stay. They continue to be incredibly popular and have been a mainstay of Fourth of July festivities for centuries. But in a warming world, they have company today among the alternatives for celebration.

“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.”

Conclusion

The rise of drone shows in Fourth of July celebrations and other events represents a significant shift in how we approach large-scale public displays. While traditional fireworks continue to be beloved and widely used, drones offer a safer, more environmentally friendly, and technologically innovative alternative. As more cities and organizations adopt drone shows, we can expect this trend to grow, providing new and exciting experiences for audiences while addressing some of the challenges posed by fireworks. The evolution of celebratory displays is underway, and drones are leading the charge.

Image by tawatchai07 on Freepik

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About author
Karishhma Mago is an entrepreneur, cryptocurrency expert, and personal branding consultant. She’s the founder & CEO of Facilius Inc. and Digital Nod, the premier digital PR agencies servicing global brands and influential public figures. With a penchant for entrepreneurship, brand building, social media, and cryptocurrency, she brings a wealth of expertise to her contributions to several esteemed publications. If not behind her laptop screen, you will find her reading her favorite books, traveling, or playing with her daughter.
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