Drones Light Up More New Year’s Eve Celebrations

On New Year’s Eve, more U.S. cities chose drone light shows as an alternative to traditional fireworks displays – or in some cases, as a complement.

Hybrid shows –which are a growing trend – occurred in numerous locales, including Baltimore, MD and New Bedford, Massachusetts.  Baltimore contracted with a local company, Images Engineering, to conduct the light show, a first for the city.  Images Engineering had previously organized drone shows for fans of the Baltimore Ravens football team but never as a showcase for a major holiday event.

Supporters of drone light shows say they aren’t as loud and booming as fireworks displays and are much easier to clean up.  In addition, some fireworks displays have touched off wildfires during dry summer seasons, especially out West.  Pressure to eliminate the displays, which are also expensive, has grown in recent years.

The main attraction of drone light shows may be their visual sophistication – if not their sheer novelty.  Drones can produce compelling multi-colored images matched to a single event – for example, an American flag “waving” on 4th of July – as well as more dazzling mobile displays depicting famous personages in action (e.g. George Washington crossing the Delaware). More elaborate shows feature music accompaniment, with the movements of the drone lights synchronized to the beat.

Still, some event-goers say they miss the visceral feel of fireworks, with its loud explosions and screaming rockets.  Last year, Galveston, Texas actually dropped its second scheduled drone light show and reinstituted their fireworks display, after some local citizens complained.

But other cities like Baltimore are trying to meld old and new, adding a drone light show while retaining a smaller fireworks display.

Staging a show is actually quite simple.  Imagine Engineering technicians consult with local officials about possible themes for their event and create a story board that illustrates it.  Once a storyboard is created, the company creates a 3D rendering of the event space and maps out a flight sequence digitally, with the movement of each drone light – anywhere from 100 to 500 total – programmed in advance.

“I like to call it a soft ballet in the sky.  Once we have the elements we’re going to use, most of the programming hovers over making sure the drones don’t collide,” says Phillip Keller, the company’s Senior Technical Director.

On site, it only takes a small company team — sometimes a single engineer or two – to manage the entire event, which usually lasts about 15 minutes, about as long as drones can fly on a single battery charge.

Augusta, Maine also just inaugurated a drone light show on New Year’s Eve – the first in the state’s history.  The show featured a succession of images close to the hearts of Maine residents, including a moose, a lobster, a gently swaying tree grove and the pouring of a craft beer.  There were loud oohs and ahs from the crowd as the drones flew over the city pier.  Many expressed amazement at the sophistication of the drone display, the first they’d ever seen.  “This is way better than fireworks” exclaimed one onlooker.

Pompano Beach, Florida began even earlier with a drone light show in November on Veterans Day.  Some 10,000 people congregated on local beaches as drones depicted a palm tree shedding a coconut and surfers riding waves as dolphins leaped nearby.

“The crowd just went wild,” said Sandra King, Pompano Beach’s city spokeswoman, of the rave reviews from the beach. “It was fantastic. The crowd was roaring and clapping and yelling from excitement.”

Some drone light show companies operate nationwide– and even globally.  Dallas, TX-based Sky Elements, just two years old, is already the nation’s largest drone light show company.  The firm supported numerous New Year’s Eve events this week, including a show in Dallas but also a huge extravaganza in Seattle, Washington.

The show was a joint venture with Pyro Spectaculars Group, one of the largest and oldest fireworks companies in the western United States.. More than 500 drones were launched together to create a succession of images – an astronaut, a rocket ship, and a UFO landing on top of the drone-illustrated Space Needle. . As the drones counted down to midnight, they were joined by an elaborate lighting and explosive pyrotechnic finale marking the arrival of the New Year.

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