Drone shows instead of 4th of July fireworks? More Colorado communities are opting for fire safety
This year, the town hired a Pennsylvania-based drone show operator to design a patriotic exhibit with a nod to the town’s ski resort history. Much like the fireworks launched in years past, the drones will be visible from the three main villages.
The group of 200 drones will be programmed to form different shapes in the sky, from the letters USA to the shape of the Statue of Liberty. The boom of explosive fireworks will be replaced by music.
“It’s basically unlimited what you can do,” Gross said. “You can put an eagle in the sky and the eagle flaps its wings. You can flutter and wave the Old Glory flag.
The city spent about $100,000 putting on the show, about three times more than it usually spends on fireworks. But the extra cost is worth it to help the community adapt to climate change, Gross said.
“It takes engagement from the communities that are making this change to step in and spend this money to reduce risk and provide a new and creative experience,” he said.
The pivot to drone shows is still in its infancy. Many communities are still sticking to traditional fireworks, but adding more safety precautions.
Estes Park plans to shoot its fireworks over a lake in the middle of town. This way sparks and debris don’t land in nearby brush or trees.
“We estimate over 20,000 people came to view our exhibit, and we have no planned laser or drone-type broadcasts,” city spokeswoman Kate Rusch said.
The wind forecast looks safe enough to keep the show going this year, said David Wolf, chief of the Estes Valley Fire Protection District.
“We’re still evaluating what could go wrong,” Wolf said. “And looking at how we’re mitigating those things through increasing the resources that are on the ground and working with the shooters to design a firework display that can be run more safely.”
The local fire district has recruited additional personnel from nearby departments to be on standby for the show, Wolf said. The city could also cancel the performance at any time if weather conditions change.
“We are fully aware of the wildfire risk,” Wolf said.
Aside from the high cost, the technology behind drone shows isn’t perfect. Propellers require constant cleaning and repair. Battery life is a big limitation, capping the length of shows at a maximum of 15 or 20 minutes.
Hill, the Arvada-based drone show operator, said he expects the technology to improve dramatically in the coming years. Only a few years ago, he was limited to doing shows with 18 or 20 drones. Today, many of his shows feature between 200 and 300.
“We’re like the iPhone 1 of drone light shows right now,” he said. “And I think in five years we can do a drone show that’s almost an hour long.”
Many people are still comfortable with the idea of drones becoming more common in everyday life, Gross said.
During rehearsal for the show in Arvada, a red truck pulled up in the parking lot near Graham and his crew. He was a neighbor. She saw the drones rehearsing from her window and got worried.
After asking a few questions, she returned home and watched the rest of her rehearsal from her back porch.
“She was a little worried,” Hill said. “I think once more and more people get to grips with the technology, people will be less scared and they’ll keep asking us to push it further.”
But the drones themselves aren’t even Hill’s favorite part of the show — it’s how they interact with the music. He is personally thrilled to see the drones forming the letters USA in red, white and blue as Ray Charles’ version of America the Beautiful plays in the background.