Fireworks on the Fourth of July have been a long-standing American tradition. But could our advances in technology someday lead us onto something even more dazzling, a show put on by nimble drones?
“Drone swarms are the new fireworks In China,” reports a video from Fortune magazine. To fight pollution, China banned fireworks in more than 400 cities, the video explains, “So the country is turning to new entertainment to fill the skies.”
Fireworks originated in China, and China now seems determined to pioneer an electronic replacement, noted the I Programmer web site. Seven weeks ago, for the China International Big Data Industry Expo 2019, there was a dazzling display involving 526 drones forming three-dimensional aerial patterns in the skies of Guiyang.
“The quality of the display is exceptional,” I Programmer noted, “proving that drones can replace fireworks for spectacular large-scale displays.”
The article also shared some interesting history: Intel had set a record in December of 2017 “for the most unmanned aerial vehicles airborne simultaneously” — 1,218 of them. Intel filmed what it planned to perform live for the opening ceremony of the 2018 Opening Ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games — but then had to swap in the recorded performance when the weather turned uncooperative.
Just five months later, China set a new record in May of 2018, launching 1,374 drones into the sky. And less than eight weeks later, in July of 2018, Intel seized back the world record, according to the official Guinness World Records site — using some fireworks-like patterns to do it.
Intel simultaneously flew 2,066 drones over Folsom, California, first forming some glowing blue “dandelion” puffs that looked just like slow-moving fireworks. Although unlike fireworks, the blue pixels then came together to form Intel’s logo across the sky…) There was one dazzling shape after another — a jellyfish, planet earth.
The Data Behind the Dazzle
It’s a technologically-impressive feat. “All drones were controlled by one computer,” explains the Guinness World Records site, “and performed an impressive light show choreographed into an aerial ballet spectacle accompanied by music.” The performance displayed a level of detail that would be hard to achieve with fireworks.
Each drone weighs less than a pound, yet can create more than 4 billion different color combinations. Intel’s promotional material describes this as “virtually limitless color combinations.” Intel’s software can check the entire fleet of drones before a show, enabling it to “select the most optimized drones for each flight based on battery life, GPS reception and more.”
Intel drones wants to take over the world of fireworks 🎆 pic.twitter.com/6LQVxSGr2g
— CNET (@CNET) June 28, 2019
In May of 2018, when Time magazine devoted an entire issue to “The Drone Age,” Intel helped out by creating Time’s iconic red cover border in the sky with nearly 1,000 drones — even including the red Time logo — which was then photographed and used instead of that issue’s usual red border. A Time video explains this is the first cover for the magazine that was also photographed by a drone.
But amazing drone light shows are gradually becoming more common. CNBC notes that Intel had already flown over 300 drone shows in 16 countries in the three years since they began performing sky-based spectacles with its “Shooting Stars” drones. The company is currently soliciting inquiries for future appearances at upcoming professional events.
So could these drones one day replace fireworks displays?
Wind Not Rain
Last year, just over an hour north of Silicon Valley, the Travis Air Force base had hoped to celebrate the 4th of July with a massive display of over 500 Intel drones, according to one Intel announcement. “The story of the Air Force is a story of innovation,” said Col. John Klein, Travis Air Force Base installation commander. It was meant to be the first time Intel’s drones had replaced a fireworks show. “With Travis in close proximity to Silicon Valley, the base strives to develop relationships and to play an active role in Northern California’s innovation ecosystem.”
Intel’s general manager for drones, Natalie Cheung was very excited. “It’s kind of geeky, right? It’s so geeky,” she told a local news outlet. “I love it, every time the drone flies up, my stomach flutters a little bit with excitement, and I’m just excited to turn around and see the audience and see their reactions for the first time.”
Unfortunately, due to high winds, the show had to be postponed — and was performed instead on July 5.
Still, the idea of replacing fireworks displays with drone shows seems to be slowly capturing the imagination of more and more city officials — and Intel isn’t the only company offering amazing aerial drone displays.
Lake Oswego is hosting a drone light show! https://t.co/7k8bmay3la
— PortlandCheap (@portlandcheap) July 1, 2019
Last year the CityLab site reported that some American cities were looking at replacing their fireworks displays with drone light shows in at least three dry western states concerned about wildfires — Arizona, California, and Colorado. At least 11 different Colorado cities — and six in Arizona — had already canceled their fireworks displays out of concern of sparking a wildfire. Two cities planned to replace their fireworks displays with a laser show, but others set their sights on synchronized drones.
Aspen, Colorado was all set to go — until a fire broke out on July 3, filling the skies with smoke and leading to the drone show’s cancellation, according to one local newspaper. The city tried again, the paper adds, but just day’s before this year’s event, the Michigan-based production company again canceled the show due to technical difficulties. “We identified a backend communications logic failure with our software and communications equipment. Until our software vendor can thoroughly identify and correct this issue through performance-based testing, we will keep our fleet grounded,” said a representative for the company.
Other aspiring venues have simply been disappointed by the high costs. Representatives of Bainbridge Island (in Washington state’s Kitsap county) had hoped to host Intel’s first Fourth of July drone show this year, apparently as a way to take a stand against air pollution. But according to local reports, the “Carbon Free Fourth of July Committee” but had been unable to find sponsors to cover its $200,000-$300,000 cost. Hopes are still high for a big show in 2020. “The technology is still coming, and Intel is still developing new methods to demonstrate the power of these microprocessors,” said one still-enthusiastic member of the fireworks committee.
“We have to find a sponsor that understands the environmental impact of a traditional show and wants to get behind this.”
Replace fireworks with drone light shows. Better for the birds. https://t.co/DXvNqklcsZ
— Daniel-Nikpayuk (@Daniel_Nikpayuk) June 30, 2019
Momentum is still slowly building. On Saturday, just north of Phoenix, in the town of Carefree, Arizona, there will be a “fireworks-free light showing involving LED-equipped drones,” reported the Phoenix New Times. “A fleet of more than 100 LED drones will perform a choreographed ballet of light, color, and movement set to music.”)
And California’s recycling agency noted that this year’s state fair will replace their usual fireworks with a drone light show, calling it “a way to be environmentally safer and more inclusive to those who are sensitive to loud explosions.”
The agency points out that after the fireworks at Super Bowl 50, enough “pyrotechnic debris” washed up on the beaches of San Francisco to fill four 5-gallon tubs. If drones are “a way to keep less debris from falling into our waters and ending up in our landfills, it may not be a bad option this summer or for years to come,” the agency noted.
Drone light show instead of fireworks.. reduces trash, no fires, pic.twitter.com/9x7AjZyRH1
— 💟 Heather morgē♉ (@MorgeHeather83) July 2, 2019
Of course, drones may work their way into our holiday celebrations in other ways. In Amesbury, Massachusetts the annual fireworks at Woodsom Farm will be preceded by a drone race (including an obstacle course) courtesy of an organization called North East Racing Drones, (or NERDS).
Maybe there’s a universal fascination with objects in the sky — and replacing fireworks with aerial drone shows will inevitably become the next logical step. One columnist has even joked that if humanity stays on this trajectory, we’ll someday be telling our grandkids about our long-ago memories of fireworks on the Fourth of July.
“They used to shoot colorful explosives in the sky before the flying robots took over.”
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