IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Fireworks: Cities Are Replacing a Longtime Tradition With Tech

Cities, especially those in fire-prone areas, are increasingly exploring tech-based alternatives to traditional fireworks shows. While not everyone is a fan of the switch, officials are discovering unexpected benefits.

Two people stand and watch a drone show. One of the people is wearing a uniform that says "LICENSED DRONE PILOT" and "STAND CLEAR"
Photo courtesy of
The looming threat of wildfires, coupled with the desire to make fireworks shows more accessible, has some cities looking to cutting-edge technology as an alternative.

Laser- and drone-based light shows are gaining popularity nationwide, especially in states and localities at risk of potentially catastrophic fires.

As that risk becomes more extreme by the year for western states, cities like Aspen, Colo., opted to cancel fireworks shows years ago to counter the risks. According to the National Fire Protection Association, consumer fireworks start over 19,000 fires each year.

Reducing fire danger was one of the contributing factors for Salt Lake City putting on a laser light show this year to celebrate the Fourth of July, according to Andrew Wittenberg, the city’s director of communications.

While he noted that people love fireworks displays, he said there has been an outpouring of support from people who recognized that a laser show would be different and safer, mitigating both fire and air quality concerns.

The laser light show lasted about 15-20 minutes and was accompanied by a music show that was synced to the laser lights.

The city put on a second laser show for the state’s Pioneer Day holiday, and Wittenberg said there will be consideration to do the shows again, especially for holidays during summer months and in drought conditions. Ultimately, that is a budget decision that will lie with City Council.

Wittenberg said that the laser alternative was in the same price range as a traditional fireworks show.

For the city of Imperial Beach, Calif., the decision to opt out of a traditional fireworks show for this year’s Fourth of July celebration was one that was made for them when the producer of their show had to cancel about a week before the event, City Manager Andy Hall explained. Because of the short notice, the city was unable to find another fireworks producer to put on the show, but found a company who could produce one using drones.

As Hall explained, the public reaction to this shift was mixed, but a lot of people in the community liked the show. For example, he said that because the city is a military community, people who suffer from PTSD appreciated it, as did pet owners, who were able to participate rather than leave their pets at home.

Another important benefit of the drone show was its impact — or lack thereof — on the environment. As Hall explained, with wildlife refuges on both the north and south sides of the community, the drones do not have the same negative impact that large fireworks would on the nesting birds in the estuary.

While the drone show was without the traditional “booms” that accompany a fireworks show, the city created a downloadable playlist that was programmed to match drone flight patterns.

The customizable nature of a drone show allowed producers to program the devices to create shapes of the five military branches’ symbols as a tribute to the community's military residents. At another point in the show, the drones displayed a heart and IB to represent love for Imperial Beach.

“We’re excited to try it again and see if we can improve on [about] four days of preparation and make it something a little bit more special,” he said, while underlining the hard work of city staff and the company to make a “remarkable” show happen in less than a week.

The drones’ batteries last about 12-13 minutes, while firework shows typically last about 20 minutes. Hall said if the city puts on another drone show in the future, they would explore doing so with additional drones to stretch that time period.


Graham Hill is the CEO and founder of LLC, a company that produces drone light shows.

“We didn’t set out to replace fireworks early on, but now we’re seeing communities are asking us to do it,” he explained, citing the company’s location in Denver and the wildfire risks in the area as a contributing factor to a rise in popularity in this space.

Drone show display shows an American flag as people stand around looking at it. A screen reads "Happy 4th of July!"
Photo courtesy of
Hill said that his previous experience with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory helped shape his perspective on the capabilities of drones as a tool. For example, a drone show that the company put on in Big Bear Lake helped prevent disruption to the young nesting bald eagle in the area.

Unlike fireworks, Hill said that drone technology takes the guesswork out of the events. With a precise map of planned flight paths and timing, drone shows allow cities to calculate safety risks and prepare accordingly.

“We’ve seen astronomical increase in requests,” Hill said, citing a 10-fold increase in demand compared to last year.

And his belief is that as these shows continue to grow in popularity, the equipment will grow in sophistication. For example, he believes that flight time for drones may be doubled in the next year and the necessary size of operational crews will be reduced.

“We don’t need more drones; we want smarter drones,” he said.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.