Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Can the high-tech alternative deliver the same kind of boom?
As far as Independence Day festivities go, the one in Aspen, Colorado, is as old fashioned as it gets—it is, after all, called the “Old-Fashioned July 4th Celebration.” This year, a parade of vintage cars, American flags, and people dressed in patriotic gear will run through Main Street. There will be a community picnic and a block party, along with live music. Then at night, skies will light up with a spectacular display... but not of fireworks. Instead, spectators will be treated to a dance of lighted-up drones.
The irony isn’t lost on Melissa Wisenbaker, a spokesperson for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, which organized the events. “Yes, this is a very new-age thing,” she said. “But you have to evolve.”
This year, amid the dry climate and concerns over the spread of wildfires, cities in Colorado, Arizona, and California are skipping the traditional fireworks displays and replacing them with what they hope will be an equally dazzling drone light show.
In Aspen, that means instead of fiery explosions, the skies will light up with LED lights from 50 drones, carefully choreographed by the Michigan-based Great Lakes Drone Company to make shapes like stars and the American flag. There will be no drifting smoke. Instead of explosive booms followed by crackling, viewers will hear the gentle hum from the drones’ motors. Wisenbaker said patriotic music will be blasting in the background to keep the mood upbeat.
That has to make you wonder: What is July 4th without the fireworks? Well, the alternative would have been dead silence. “I’ve worked here in the past seven years, and we’ve had to cancel twice—both times for high fire danger,” Wisenbaker said. In fact, the city had to nix the show last year. And it isn’t not alone.
Just in Colorado, at least 11 communities and organizations have canceled fireworks as firefighters battle as many as a dozen wildfires across the state. In Arizona, six towns are also canceling the spectacle—though one town, Cave Creek, is also swapping in a drone show. And in California, where fires have not only been ravaging entire cities but also choking the air, officials are opting not to put on a show for the sake of safety. As in Cave Creek and Aspen, some Bay Area residents will get to enjoy a drone display thanks to a partnership between Travis Air Force Base and Intel. That’s the same company that helped South Korea wow the world with over 1,200 drones during the closing ceremony of this year’s Winter Olympics.
So, no, celebrating America’s independence probably won’t be the same without fireworks. But this may be the start of a new tradition—at least in Aspen—depending on how residents respond to the drones this year. Jennifer Carney, vice president of Aspen’s marketing team, said the cost of a drone show—which Great Lakes Drone Company usually charges between $15,000 and $25,000, not including customization—is comparable to the traditional fireworks displays. Still the drone display will have its own set of logistical challenges; Aspen sits just a few miles from an airport, and, Wisenbaker said, the organizers had to make sure that residents understand that this is not an invitation to bring their own flying machines. Cities will also have to consider wind speeds.
But all that may be a small tradeoff to preventing the next big fire. “If we are having these increased fire dangers and risks every year,” Wisenbaker said, “then we would like to have alternatives so people can end the night on a good note.”