Droning On

It was almost a year ago. I was sitting on a couch in an apartment on the south side of Chicago. A friend of mine was hosting a get together; the type of gathering that mid to late twenty-somethings attend. Dim lights, good drinks, and pleasing music providing the perfect backdrop to meet fellow creatives and future decision makers in a casual setting. These are the conference rooms of my generation, a place where one can witness the future being candidly discussed and debated before it is built.

“Wow, I had never thought of that. That is an amazing idea!” I said earnestly, my mind already visualizing a realm of unlimited possibilities and potential.

“I thought so too,” said my new friend, “I’ve just been trying to find the right person to work with on this thing. I need someone visual to design something unique with it. This could be huge.”

Contact information was exchanged along with handshakes, enthusiastic smiles, and high fives. We even toasted to our new endeavor.

My new friend was a freshly minted electrical engineer. He was working an entry level engineering job and was seeking an opportunity to utilize his potential. Rather than searching for a new job, he was chasing the American Dream and came up with a fantastic idea.

Drones were the hot new trend in electronics and their applications were expanding every day. He had come up with the idea to engineer a way to coordinate multiple drones to fly in intricate patterns that could create designs in the sky. As a fireworks choreographer who is used to working in a large scale and dynamic medium, I immediately started brainstorming the possibilities. Hundreds, no, thousands of drones, each displaying their own light and acting as a pixel in a giant image in the sky. Their flight patterns could be tightly choreographed to create near perfect arrangements that could fluidly change. The drones could even carry other visual mediums, shapes, and patterns and illuminate the night sky.

I pictured a stadium full of people at the Olympic opening ceremonies or the World Cup witnessing an enormous, perfectly choreographed display of flying objects dancing in the air before them. This was huge. A game changer.

As these things tend to go, we drifted apart after that meeting. We lived our lives, crossing paths sporadically, but mostly caught up in our day to day activities. He put his head down and made his way up the ladder at work and I spun my wheels working on project after project trying to gain some traction. The project lingered in the back of my mind but I didn’t act on it. There would always bet time to work on this incredible breakthrough. It was such a good idea, no one would attempt it for years. The idea was just too damn good.

Then a few weeks ago, this article came across my Facebook feed. It’s a story about how the CEO of Intel commissioned his marketing team to create something interesting using drone technology. That something happened to be a synchronized aerial light show of flying drones choreographed to a live orchestra playing music.

Damn. That was my idea.

For a moment, a strong feeling of disappointment washed over me. Someone had beat us to it. Our brilliant, career making idea had just come to life and someone else was taking all of the glory. How could I have been so stupid to not stop everything I was doing and dedicate myself to this endeavor the moment we had come up with it?

Luckily, the flash of discouragement was soon met with a flood of reasoning. Intel, arguably one of the biggest technology companies of all time, employed a team of 15 engineers that worked for months to make this project a reality. And not just any engineers, but engineers with German sounding accents. They had a warehouse and labs and fancy laptops with custom software. There were custom rigs, the best tools, and a pile of Intel money to work with. Most importantly, they had drones, a piece of technology that I own exactly zero of. It was apparent in the voices of the engineers that this was a challenging project on all fronts. Perhaps this was beyond the scope of what two half-sober and completely broke twenty-somethings sitting on a couch could create.

And that is when the excitement took over. Intel had just done all of the awful, tedious, and costly work for us! It is only a matter of time now until this technology is available to industry professionals and prosumers alike, complete with 3D software for mapping and accessory bundles for expanding visual possibilities. My mind was full of optimism and ideas once again.

Several weeks passed and more links to articles about this drone technology filled my Facebook feed. It was among these articles that an interesting statement emerged. The CEO of Intel, Mr. Brian Krzanich was quoted during his speech at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show saying that Intel will be “able to completely redefine the firework experience.”

Mr. Krzanich went on, saying that “I see a future where fireworks and all their risks of smoke and dirt are a thing of the past, and they’re replaced by shows that have unlimited creativity and potential – and powered by drones.”

Hmm.

It is easy to take it as an attack on fireworks and react defensively. However, my instinct tells me this is more of a marketing move by Mr. Krzanich, who is eager to spread the word about the technology his team has brought to life. By all accounts, Intel has done something wonderful. But, like many forms of entertainment, it is tempting to market it as being something beyond just a new visual medium. Compared to fireworks, drones are a safer, cleaner, and “greener” alternative for large scale, live visual entertainment.

When I had first thought of and seen this technology, it had never occurred to me that it could be a potential replacement for fireworks. I had imagined it as a more precise enhancement, if not a different medium all together. As previously mentioned, I pictured drones swooping over stadiums during Olympic Opening Ceremonies and spelling out the names of nations or painting giant flags in the sky. Visions of dancing drones creating abstract images over a crowd at an EDM festival. Even home town 4th of July fireworks shows could be enhanced with flying set pieces that promoted sponsors or drew patriotic symbols before a starry backdrop.

While the drone technology is extremely impressive as a visual medium, it lacks in several categories that only fireworks and pyrotechnics can bring to the table. The first and most obvious of these is the absence of sound. Although the Intel Drone Display was choreographed to a live orchestra playing music, just like many fireworks displays are, there is no acoustic dynamic to enhance the soundtrack the way that fireworks do.

For example, here is a clip of several drones flying with no music or sound dubbed over:

For comparison, this is a clip of a Mascleta, a traditional Spanish daytime fireworks display that is shot without music:

As you can hear, the sounds are drastically different. The whistles, booms, and blasts of the fireworks add an entirely unique sensory dimension and rhythm to the display that drones on their own simply cannot replicate.

Furthermore, the smoke that Mr. Krzanich refers to as a “risk” adds the sense of smell to the experience. Although the scent of pyrotechnic residue may not be pleasing to all, any enthusiast will tell you that they love the smell of freshly fired fireworks. Much like a fine cigar, the aroma and to some extent, flavor of such residue is an enjoyable sensory experience to many. After attending a Mascleta in person, the smoky scent will linger in your clothing, just like the smell of last night’s campfire. With this scent comes a vivid reminder of the wonderful experience that only serves to enhance the memory.

In contrast, drones smell like plastic and batteries. The odor isn’t unpleasant, but it sure lacks that pyrotechnic charm.

The second “risk” Mr. Krzanich mentions is that of “dirt” associated with fireworks. Without elaboration, I assume that what is being referenced is the fallout that is produced by aerial fireworks. While it is true that bits of burnt paper and debris are the byproduct of a fireworks display, the “risk” of such items is mitigated by having a controlled shoot site with a predetermined fallout zone outside of the audience seating area. Any reputable fireworks company will plan ahead for such “risks” and leave the site clean of such “dirt” when the display is concluded.

In the United States, the National Fire Protection Association has strict distance guidelines in place to prevent any fireworks devices or debris encroaching the audience. The vast majority of debris that occasionally does land near the crowd is harmless paper carried by the wind. I would much prefer to have what is essentially confetti land on my head than a drone with a dead battery dropping out of the sky.

Additionally, in the USA, biodegradable materials are used to construct the vast majority of fireworks. Even plastic shell casings have been decommissioned for years to provide for more environmentally friendly fallout and drastically cut down on “dirt”.

That said, in many parts of the world, the “dirt” and fallout of a fireworks display is fully considered part of the experience. Being hit by debris or even lit pyrotechnic devices themselves is considered honorable and a show is incomplete without those hazards. Those traditions are difficult or impossible to replicate with any other types of devices.

This brings me to the sense of touch. I would imagine that with enough drones, a rather significant amount of air might be displaced making for a refreshing breeze over the audience. It may even be possible to dishevel hair.

Pyrotechnics, on the other hand, have the ability to instantly raise the air temperature by upwards of 50 degrees Fahrenheit for hundreds of feet in every direction. Anyone who has seen a propane flame projector spray fire 30 feet into the air or 20 gallons of gasoline rapidly turn into a 100 foot fireball knows just how impressive it is. For a brief moment, the audience is convinced that their eyebrows are no longer with them as a pressure wave firmly reminds them to remain seated. It’s pure, unadulterated awesomeness on several levels.

And that brings me to my final comparison. Fireworks, are an inherent example of controlled chaos. We as humans have an unquestionable primal connection to fire. It is equal parts destructive and inspirational. It can act as an agent of chaos, ravaging everything in its path and yet when it is controlled, it benefits us as an essential means to our survival. Few things are as utterly terrifying as an uncontrolled blaze or as intrinsically beautiful as a confined flame.

Thanks to this unique relationship, there is a unique adrenaline spike that results from hurling explosives into the air and setting their contents on fire in an elegant pattern. It simply cannot be replicated by any other means.

Here is a clip of the final moments of the Intel drone display. Pay particular attention to the audience reaction at the end:

It is by all means impressive. The choreography of the lit up drones and music makes for an engaging experience. The live orchestra playing such a familiar tune to a crescendo adds quite a bit to the impact of the massive visual display. It’s very cool and it is by all means deserving of the applause at the end of the show and the recognition that Intel has gotten for the project.

Now here is a clip of the final moments of the Arlington Park 4th of July fireworks display from 2013 as shot on a cell phone by an enthusiastic member of the audience. This is a show that I have been choreographing for ACE Pyro for several years. Once again, pay particular attention to the audience reaction at the end (CAUTION: Explicit Language at 1:40)

The reaction of the crowd to the fireworks display is a bit more dramatic. While the blinding visual of so many fireworks filling the night sky is impressive, it is only one element of the show. There is also the sound of the 1812 Overture being blasted at full volume over the Arlington Park sound system. So far, this matches the visual and acoustic elements of the drone display.

The fireworks show is enhanced further by an additional acoustic layer composed of the deafening noise of thousands of salutes exploding in the air. In addition, although it can’t be heard or seen in the video, the pressure waves created by so many explosions are pummeling the audience causing an intense physical reaction similar to that of cresting a very large roller-coaster. All of these effects are amplified by the length of time that such a sustained attack on the senses is occurring.

Although the audience at the fireworks show is not in danger, the sheer amount of sensory overload taking place over such an extended period of time is causing their brain to react as if it is in danger. Adrenaline rises, fight or flight sets in, and the experience goes beyond any rational understanding or appreciation. The fireworks have literally overwhelmed their senses and caused an override in their brains. They are wholly consumed by the experience. Hence the completely uninhibited reaction at the end of the display.

I don’t know how many drones it would take to create that reaction, but it is certainly more than 100.

Simply put, although this technology is awesome, much like lasers, it is not going to replace fireworks anytime soon.

That said, drones will do a lot to enhance live entertainment in the near future. What Intel has done is extremely impressive and I truly cannot wait to get my hands on these things. Any time a new visual medium is introduced, it always serves to enhance the artistic abilities and impact of future designers, choreographers, and entertainers of all types. All of us in the fireworks industry should embrace it and look for ways to include it in our presentations. I know I most certainly will.

4 thoughts on “Droning On

  1. Another piece of great writing. So far I have found that lights, lasers and now drones can add to fireworks show but can also be an unwanted distraction. As pyros try to combine these other elements in to a show they should not lose sight of what makes fireworks so magical to people.

    People are spooked by the unpredictable gap between the flash and the bang. The suspense created in the gap between expectation and event frightens us, which is fun, but only when we’re in control.

    That “unpredictable gap” is something lights can never accomplish.

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