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Will drone light shows gradually replace fireworks at public events?

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Fireworks are a staple part of public celebrations during events such as the Fourth of July, New Year’s Day or Guy Fawkes Day.

Americans have been using fireworks to commemorate Independence Day since July 4, 1777. The Chinese were burning fireworks to ward off evil spirits way back in the 9th friggin century.

In the last few years, however, drone light displays have started showing up during big public spectacles instead of fireworks. Drone light shows featured at both the opening and closing ceremonies of this year’s Pyeongchang Games and in 2017 drones made an appearance during the Superbowl half time show. Is this a trend that is set to continue?

A snowboarder outline forms in the night sky during the Opening Ceremony of Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. 1218 Intel drones formed this giant figure in the sky.

Advantages drones have over fireworks

They’re much safer 

While Americans spent more than $1 billion on fireworks this year alone, several states have total bans in place and multiple others only allow non-aerial fireworks. Why would some states want bans? Well – in 2016, there were 11,000 fireworks related injuries in the US. Among the injuries were people who were blinded, received serious burns or blew their hands off. Four people were even killed as a result of fireworks.

One could argue that nearly all firework related injuries stem from people mucking at home and not at public displays. While that’s certainly true in most cases, public fireworks displays do sometimes go wrong.

During a public display in Edinburgh, Scotland, back in 2012, a firework misfired and ricocheted into the remaining stash, setting them all off at the same time (see video below).  Luckily most of those in attendance escaped unscathed but one young girl unfortunately suffered burns to her face. This incident is a reminder that even in controlled circumstances, when things go wrong – fireworks have the capacity to seriously maim or even kill. There are endless YouTube compilations such as “Ultimate Fireworks Fail Compilation,” that show example after example of fireworks toppling over and shooting into crowds or misfires resulting in infernos.

Many of these videos are simply demonstrations of public idiocy but sometimes, even with the best preparation, things turn to custard. The element of danger associated with fireworks is probably a large part of their appeal. We are humbled by the power of explosions and the shower of colors. Are they really worth the risk though? On top of the risk of injury, fireworks frequently cause fires. When conditions are dry, sparks from fireworks can easily set off wildfires as was the case at a public display last year in Phoenix. As temperatures around the world continue to climb and more and more wildfires break out in States like California, there are multiple public calls to ban the public sale of fireworks such as in this recent editorial from the Sacremento Bee.

The risk posed by fireworks to public safety is simply non-existent at drone light shows. Could one of the drones conceivably spin out of control and hit a spectator? Maybe – but it’s highly unlikely and they have features inbuilt to prevent that kind of thing from happening. Drones create no smoke (so no risk of asthma attacks for anyone in the audience), not to mention that drones are less harmful to the environment (all that smoke in our atmosphere can’t be entirely healthy, right?).

Drone light displays are cheaper

This may be a little counterintuitive at first glance. After all, aren’t drones pretty expensive? Not necessarily. The drones used during Intel’s Olympic displays are actually reaonably cheap on an individual basis. The technology powering the chips in each of the drones and the software that controls the drones do have plenty of silicone valley cash behind it but once the technology exists, the cost per drone drops dramatically.

Each of the hundreds of Intel’s Shotting Star drones weighs just 280 grams (lighter than a volleyball), and are constructed from a soft frame made of flexible plastics and foam and containing no screws. The quadcopter’s propellers are also protected by covered cages – all features designed to ensure the drone is safe to fly, is splash-proof and can fly in light rain.

Once you have your fleet of drones, you can reuse them hundreds of times and arrange them in as many intricate patterns as your mind can imagine. A city or event wanting such a display could potentially rent drones from a manufacturer for one off events. I’m not sure if this is alreaday possible but if it’s not, it sure should be. By comparison, commercial fireworks are are a one-and-done type deal and are by no means cheap. The New Year’s Day firework display at the Sydney Harbour Bridge is world famous and undeniably spectacular but also costs $7 million Australian dollars (5.2 million USD). Granted – there were 8 tonnes of fireworks and the display went on for 12 minutes but after the end of the display, all you’re left with is the smell of smoke and gunpowder and a pile of spent fireworks.

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