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The High-Tech Dagger to Fireworks’ Heart?

The 2020 New Year’s fireworks broke my heart. Again. No greeny rant coming, although we’ll touch on that topic later. I felt deep disappointment.

Synchronized Fireworks Peonies across the Las Vegas Strip
Synchronized Fireworks Peonies across the Las Vegas Strip (Source Wolf O’Rourc)

Years ago, I enjoyed the ultimate experience at a private function. The cool grass cuddling my back. Immersed in the music of a surround-sound system that overpowered the bangs. De-lightful figures forming and fading above while a sideways summer breeze chased away the smoke. All the conditions perfect.

And impossible to reproduce at scale. None of the huge New Year’s Eve parties I’ve witnessed in person or on video came close. Too much can and does go wrong to mar the experience.

With some luck, you can find a spot near enough to a speaker to hear the synchronized music and see the fireworks. If still air doesn’t leave vast clouds of smoke blocking your view. And line-of-sight also delivers the loudest explosions and usually out of synch with the beat. Physics thwarts the enjoyment.

Smoking Stratosphere with Fireworks Rings
Smoking Stratosphere with Fireworks Rings (Source Wolf O’Rourc)

Video recordings don’t help either. All the footage I saw this year from Las Vegas, Denver, or Dallas eventually drowned in smoke while the music played over the noise of the original soundtrack. For the poor camera of the Times Square Alliance, a lull in the wind left the ball drop hidden behind a wall of grey for the last 7 seconds.

Given all their limitations, maybe fireworks should join vinyl and silver nitrate film with a high-tech replacement. While the new can’t completely mimic the old, technology has a number of promises.

Drones to the Rescue

Leading the way, Intel for years now offered large-scale synchronized light shows with up to 2,000 drones. Check out my phone video from LDI Las Vegas. Fun and exciting with none of fireworks’ problems. With traffic blocked during the event, nothing competed with the sound system. The soft hum of the electric motors drowned in the music. No smoke whatsoever. Instead a clear view of the color spectacle that the autofocus of my smartphone unfortunately scaled back in the low light.

Intel Drone Light Show


Intel Drone Light Show to Original Sound of Styx’s “The Grand Illusion” (Source Wolf O’Rourc)

Can LEDs replace chemical reactions? Coordinated swarms can certainly create peonies and rings. Hovering drones can even paint complex images in a way fireworks can’t. Two-dimensional displays only look right from a certain angle, but that can suit large events. The soaring artists at the beginning of Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl LI Halftime performance thrilled thousands in the stadium.

Each light can change color synchronized to the music. As a recovering chemist and hobby magician, I can tell you the hues possible with electronics blow away pyrotechnics.

Score a definite win for technology. Although in fairness, the human eye can’t keep up. Try it for yourself in any paint program that has an RGB color editor. Do you really see a difference between the Red, Green, and Blue values 255, 0, 255 and 255, 1, 255? (Readers of Cyberspiracy may recognize #FF00FF, the hexadecimal equivalent of the former, as the color Fuchsia in Cowabunga’s frame of hearts).

But what about the incredible pictures tailed stars can paint, like comets, chrysanthemums, or palms? Presently the drones carry one light each. Advances in LED strips may make faking these effects possible in the future. Admittedly, fire and explosions fascinate, particularly up close. Right now, I have to call a visual tie.

Fireworks Palm over Las Vegas Strip
Fireworks Palm over Las Vegas Strip (Source Wolf O’Rourc)

The little flyers definitely win my heart and ears for their silence. Should enough people actually miss noises like bangs, crackles, or whistles, the soundtrack could provide them. Hollywood has proven the emotional impact of recorded explosions. Although early risers, pet owners, and all our four-legged friends may veto them. One dog hid under my chair during this year’s ten-minute barrage.

Doubly Costly

High-tech lightworks also have a cost advantage. The USA spends over $1 billion on one-time-use fireworks. In addition, cities spend an average $20,000 on required insurance and police. Add to that the human toll. In 2018, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 5 deaths and 9,100 injuries from fireworks.

Obviously, drones can go off course and hurt someone. But geofencing and remote control make them far safer than flying bombs dropping back to earth. Never mind sparking fires.

To Your Health …and the Environment

I can also do without the unhealthy effects. Protests didn’t stop Sydney from adding harmful exhaust fumes to the smoke from wildfires engulfing southeast Australia. Nevertheless, the no longer hidden costs have led to many cancellations. China, the country that invented fireworks, banned them in more than 400 cities with already poor air quality. Many large events opted for electronic replacements.

In Germany, municipalities reconsidered the country’s long-established New Year’s Eve tradition. Berlin focused on public safety. Others keyed in on a report from the federal office for the environment stating that this one night spiked fine-particle emissions by as much as all cars and trucks generated in two months. Such harmful dust led to driving restrictions in many places.

Fireworks also generate tons of garbage like bags, clingfilm, or cartons. In many locations, the debris rains onto water to the enchantment (or not) of fishes. In contrast, drone companies reuse their containers to bring everything home.

Frustrating Fireworks Foes

All these problems come on top of regular disappointments. Wind, water, weather in general hobble fireworks. The chemicals, including the outer fuses, can’t get wet. Extreme rain, condensation, and dew can ruin an event. Professionals will stop firing if their eye protection fogs up. Even a slight breeze blowing toward spectators can render a 25m safety distance useless against falling debris or a wall of smoke. A lull can leave it obscuring the effects as happened in New York City.

High winds have postponed drone events too. Although the little flyers can brave double-digit speeds, those going upwind slow down. Such differences between members of a swarm can mess up the choreography. Waterproof ones can make short flights under water. But would you want to witness a waterlogged event, particularly since new tracking systems brought drone shows indoors?

Light & Fire

Unconcerned with weather and unencumbered by flight regulations, agile mini drones can show off spectacular stunts almost within reach of the audience. Much preferred for this veteran of New Year’s Eve in the snow.

Verity Studios Drone Light Show


Inside Las Vegas Convention Center to Original Sound of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” (Source Wolf O’Rourc)

In addition to making a quiet substitute for Roman candles, laser and LED light shows can also project colorful images synchronized to music. Outdoors, cities with a traditionally fixed viewing direction, like Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, can create spectacular effects with them alone.

Still, fireworks have burned themselves into people’s psyche throughout history. The sights and sounds define U.S. culture to the point of finding a place in the national anthem. Other countries have strong traditions too. I saw a middle ground New Year 2020. Paris and Taipei showed off the combination of old and new with musical light shows culminating in short fireworks.

Musical Light Show and Fireworks at the Arc de Triomphe


Musical Light Show and Fireworks at the Arc de Triomphe (Source Global News)

Fire Fireworks?

Banning what many love encourages black market buying of often extremely dangerous illegal fireworks. Germany allows retail sales specifically around New Year so people can enjoy their passion. The price of high-tech light shows also hasn’t come down enough for most families’ budgets. So for all the pyromaniacs who as kids mixed their own black powder (just ask my mom), I say make the best out of all the possibilities.

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