Fireworks have long been a big part of throwing a party globally, and in the United States, they’ve been part of Independence Day since the beginning. But, they have drawbacks like noise, wildfire risks, smoke, and injuries. Now, electric aviation is increasingly stepping up to replace fireworks by putting on light shows without the bang.
Before we get to 2022’s numbers on this, let’s look at why fireworks are so popular in the United States for Independence Day.
Fireworks have their origin in China, going back over 1,000 years. Initially, burning bamboo created popping sounds, but later gunpowder and other elements lead to bigger pops, aerial displays, and even colors by adding different metals to the powder mixture. It’s an ancient technology that eventually found its way around the world for celebrations in much the same way gunpowder and cannons did.
It may seem a little strange today that Americans would use a Chinese invention to celebrate the Fourth of July (especially with the nationalism many associate with the holiday). But, it wasn’t always this way. Historically, people like George Washington wanted “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.” This wasn’t a universal view, of course, but it’s quite different from the jingoism wrapped in the flag we commonly see today that would do anything it could to avoid anything not “Murican” enough.
So, it made sense to buy fireworks from foreign lands and use them to celebrate the first anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1777. The tradition took off even harder after the War of 1812, with live cannon shots and celebratory gunfire becoming far less common as people figured out that wasn’t a great idea (because what goes up must come down).
Traditions like singing The Star Spangled Banner, with its lyrics describing “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” during an 1814 battle, only reinforced the use of fireworks in US celebrations of Independence Day.
Tradition Doesn’t Eliminate All Problems
Today, putting on a fireworks show is an increasingly difficult thing to do. One big barrier to keeping this tradition up is the drought western states are facing. For example, one Colorado county accidentally started three grass fires during one holiday celebration last year, so they had to look for alternatives for the summer of 2022, when it’s hotter and drier than it was in December.
Elsewhere in Colorado, there were even graver concerns. Rare winter wildfires last year led a number of cities to not even want to try fireworks this year. Parker, Colorado’s, city government said they appreciate the tradition of fireworks, but felt the need to give a drone display a one-year trial to see if it both worked for the celebration and kept the fire risk low.
Beyond the new and unusual threats that keep fireworks from being the best choice, there are the things that annoy some people year after year. The noise frightens animals, especially pets, so there’s both an environmental problem and a problem for people whose pets freak out. The risk of injury is always a big one every year. There’s also the problem of smoke and other emissions from the fireworks that is readily apparent every time. It’s relatively small, but when done in enough places, it adds up.
Pros & Cons To Drone Displays Replacing Fireworks
The biggest con to drone display is the pricetag. You can’t just buy a few dozen consumer-grade drones and fly them around, and like fireworks, you’ve got to have experience, training, a drone license, and a waiver from the FAA to control multiple drones with just one pilot. All this means that these shows tend to start at around $25,000 with the cost quickly rising for more complex displays. Compared to the $2,000 you’d spend on a basic fireworks display, that’s quite an expense.
The other problem is availability. According to the Axios article I linked to, you’re looking at a difficult time trying to get booked for a drone display. Many municipalities just couldn’t get a drone show at any price.
“We’ve fielded hundreds of requests that we, unfortunately, can’t take,” Graham Hill, founder and CEO of Hireuavpro.com told Axios. 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. ”
On the plus side, drone displays are a lot more customizable. Fireworks have been able to make simple shapes like hearts, stars, or smiley faces for a while, but drones can paint just about anything you want in the sky with their multi-colored lights. You can make a drone show that looks like a traditional fireworks display, but you can also do things like American flags, the liberty bell, and even animations of eagles. So, they’re not only a great alternative to fireworks, but can do more things to entertain the crowd.
Both on the Fourth and on other holidays, drone shows allow a lot of other things. If you can think of it, the drone shows can probably animate it. Everything from Tetris and Mario Brothers to local characters and historical figures can all end up in the show to make it fit the occasion and the location.
A Long Way To Go Still
Axios interviewed people both in the drone display industry and the fireworks industry, and it’s clear that while records are being set, drone displays are only showing in front of a small fraction of the number of people watching fireworks displays.
The fireworks industry thinks one big thing is going to keep drones from taking their work: the multisensory experience. Many people watch fireworks shows because they like the lights, but also the sounds, the boom that shakes you, and even the smell of burning powder that pervades the air. Those are also what makes fireworks displays problematic in some cases, but it’s still loved nonetheless.
However, the lack of things that make some people angry (booms, frightened pets, smoke, etc.) combined with the increased visual flexibility makes for a competitive presence in the industry that’s still likely to take a lot of market share from fireworks displays.
Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.
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