In the 18 minutes it takes to blow up 30-some tons of fireworks for the Fourth of July show on the National Mall in D.C., it costs the government more than 200 grand. Bigger shows—like the massive Macy's show in New York City—can cost millions.
Fireworks also make local air pollution spike, and can pollute water and soil when chemicals and heavy metals shower down from the pyrotechnics.
But everyone likes a show. So Intel is attempting to pioneer an alternative that's just as mesmerizing to watch: hundreds of drones, choreographed into a spectacular light display.
The company first tested the idea in 2015, in an experiment with 100 manually programmed drones. Now they've unveiled a new drone, called the Shooting Star, designed for light shows. An algorithm automatically programs the drones to fly in formation, and a single pilot can run the display.
"You can design whatever animations your mind can dream up," says Anil Nanduri, vice president and general manager of Intel's UAV segment. "It’s like a display in the sky where you have much finer control of the animations. You can have anything from text messages to shapes and transformations."
The drones weigh less than a softball and are made from flexible plastic to make them safer (plus the propellers are covered with a cage). Because nothing's being blown up, it's safer than a fireworks show—a large part of the expense of fireworks for cities comes from insurance. And the drones can be reused again and again.
A drone show would also be quieter than pyrotechnics (though if you've ever heard the whine of a drone, a fleet of 500 wouldn't be silent; loud music might cover the mosquito-like sound, however).
Intel hopes to bring the drones to a public event soon. Despite the nostalgia of a traditional show, the company thinks crowds could embrace the new spectacle.
"Already, we’ve seen incredibly positive reactions from toddlers to grown-ups," says Nanduri. "It’s really an amazing experience."