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Why drone light shows are replacing traditional July 4th fireworks


Fireworks like these, posted by the City of Washington, D.C. - you know, the nation's capital - they've got fireworks, and they make a pretty familiar soundtrack to this holiday.


INSKEEP: So here's a question - could drones take their place?


Cities like Napa, Calif., and Salt Lake City, Utah, have opted out of traditional pyrotechnics this year. They say they're worried about pollution and the risk of wildfires, so instead, they'll create a tribute to America with a light show made by drones.

INSKEEP: If that sounds lame to you, well, hundreds of synchronized drones create images in the night sky, and they are often set to music.

FADEL: Last year, researchers at Curtin University in Australia discovered the advantages.

BILL BATEMAN: It's difficult, because I really like fireworks. I think fireworks are fantastic.

INSKEEP: Unlike Leila.

FADEL: No, I do not like fireworks.

INSKEEP: OK. I do, but go on. Go on.

FADEL: Professor Bill Bateman says their study discovered highly damaging effects from fireworks, especially where animals are concerned.

BATEMAN: Turns out, from looking at the research, that it's less the light and more the noise, so large bursts of erratic noise, it's very, very disturbing to animals, which was kind of a surprise to us, 'cause we had thought that perhaps it would turn out to be seen by them as the equivalent of a thunderstorm.

FADEL: Why was that a surprise? Sorry (laughter).

INSKEEP: I just thought they'd be used to booms of thunder, but Bateman says fireworks can trigger the startle response.

BATEMAN: There are reports from veterinary associations all around the world showing that domestic animals and farm animals will often panic and run. Horses will often drive themselves into fences to attempt to escape from firework noises.

INSKEEP: Honestly, human beings can have that experience, too - might even drive into a fence.

FADEL: And in addition to noise, fireworks also produce a lot of pollution.

BATEMAN: These firework displays can cause immediate effects on people's breathing. The quality of air after some Diwali festivals drops and stays low for about three days afterwards.

INSKEEP: Diwali festivals. Our director, Mansee Khurana, is smiling, because her dad does fireworks for a Diwali festival. But in contrast to the fireworks we have on this holiday, drones, we're told, do not pollute the air, which is one reason that Tahoe City, Calif., made the shift from fireworks to drone shows three years ago.

KATIE BIGGERS: Looking at this more sustainable option, for a lot of different reasons, it just made great sense.

FADEL: Katie Biggers at the Tahoe City Downtown Association says they were also worried about how sparks from fireworks might ignite fires, especially during a heat wave like the one in California that's escalating the wildfire danger right now.

INSKEEP: Now, if you're screaming at the radio in rage at getting rid of fireworks, you are not alone.

BIGGERS: Fireworks are something that just hits all of us. It's so nostalgic, right? We all probably grew up watching fireworks with our families, and so I think that that is kind of the bigger piece, is that more emotional connection.

FADEL: Bateman, for his part, thinks the cities who've made the switch are heading in the right direction.

BATEMAN: If we want to deal with the hugely negative effects of fireworks on the environment, then we either have to persuade people that drones are better, or we have to try and find ways of producing more eco-friendly fireworks.

INSKEEP: Hopefully, when she said fireworks are something that hits all of us, she was not speaking literally.


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