In a quiet, grassy field in Arvada, a small army of 20 drones sat ready for takeoff.
Graham Hill, their operator, peered out from a nearby control tent, watching as the light bulbs fixed onto each robot blinked a blue light. That signaled to him that they were ready to fly.
“They’re looking good,” he said. “OK. Here we go.”
Hill pressed his laptop’s space bar and the drones sprung to life. Their propeller blades hummed. A second later, the group, arranged in a perfect 5 by 4 grid, lifted off the ground and into the sky.
Together, the drones performed a choreographed 10-minute show in midair. Their lights flashed every color of the rainbow as they lined up into different shapes, forming a circle, then a diamond.
The test flight was a rehearsal for several upcoming July 4 shows. Hill’s company, Hire UAV Pro, is having its busiest season yet, with performances planned in Parker, Castle Pines and Gypsum this weekend.
Those cities, and at least two others across the state, have hired drone show designers in place of fireworks this year because of wildfire concerns. Glenwood Springs, Aspen and several others are putting on laser light shows. They’re a part of a growing number of communities in the West ditching traditional fireworks shows in the name of public safety.
“We probably had like 300, 400 requests for the Fourth of July, especially after the (Marshall Fire) up in Louisville,” Hill said. “That is 100% driven by fire risk.”
July 4 is typically one of the busiest days of the year for human-caused fires.
While not the most common cause, fireworks sparked about 19,000 fires in the United States in 2018, according to a recent study from the National Fire Protection Association. More than a quarter of those started on July 4.
Large firecrackers, rockets and cherry bombs have been banned in Colorado since 2012, but professional and public displays are an exception.
City officials in favor of drones say they take a lot of the guesswork out of planning Fourth of July festivities. Vail began looking into making the swap after drought conditions and high winds forced leaders to cancel last year’s fireworks at the last minute, said Jeremy Gross, the town’s special event coordinator.
“I will have a place in my heart for fireworks, but I think there will be other times of the year where we’ll still be able to shoot fireworks in a much safer way,” he said.
This year, the town hired a Pennsylvania-based drone show operator to design a patriotic display with a nod to the town’s ski resort history. Much like the fireworks launched in past years, the drones will be visible from the three main villages.
The group of 200 drones will be programmed to form different shapes in the sky, from the letters USA to the shape of the Statue of Liberty. The boom of exploding fireworks will be replaced by music.
“It’s basically unlimited what you can do,” Gross said. “You can put an eagle in the sky and the eagle actually flaps its wings. You can have an Old Glory flag flap and wave.”
The town spent about $100,000 to put the show together – about three times as much as it usually spends on fireworks. But the added cost is worth it to help the community adapt to a changing climate, Gross said.
“It does take a commitment from the communities that are making this change to step up to the plate and spend that money to reduce the risk and provide a new and creative experience,” he said.
The pivot to drone shows is still in its beginning stages. Many communities are still sticking with traditional fireworks, but adding more safety precautions.
Estes Park plans to shoot its fireworks show over a lake in the middle of town. That way, sparks and debris don’t land in nearby brush or trees.
“We estimate over 20,000 people come out to watch our display, and we haven’t planned for a laser or a drone type show,” said Kate Rusch, a town spokeswoman.
Wind forecasts look safe enough to go on with the show this year, said David Wolf, chief of Estes Valley Fire Protection District.
“We are always evaluating what could go wrong,” he said. “And looking at how we mitigate those things through increases in resources that are on the ground and working with the shooters to design a firework show that can be managed more safely.”
The local fire district recruited additional staff members from nearby departments to be on standby for the show, Wolf said. The town could also cancel the performance at any time if weather conditions change.
“We are fully aware of the wildfire risks,” he said.
Aside from the high cost, the technology behind drone shows isn’t perfect. Propellers need constant cleaning and repairs. Battery life is a big limitation, capping show lengths to a maximum of 15 or 20 minutes.
Hill, the Arvada-based drone show operator, said he expects technology to improve drastically in the coming years. It was only a couple years ago that he was limited to doing shows with 18 or 20 drones. Now, many of his shows feature 200 to 300.
“We’re at like the iPhone 1 of drone light shows right now,” he said “And I expect in five years, we’re gonna be able to do a near hourlong drone show.”
Many people are still getting comfortable with the idea of drones becoming more common in everyday life, Gross said.
During the show rehearsal in Arvada, a red truck pulled up to the parking lot near Graham and his team. It was a neighbor. She saw the drones rehearsing from her window and got concerned.
After asking a few questions, she drove back over to her home and watched the rest of her rehearsal from her back porch.
“She was a little concerned,” Hill said. “I think once more and more people become familiar with the technology, people are going to get less fearful and they’re going to keep asking us to push it further.”
But the drones themselves aren’t even Hill’s favorite part of the show – it’s the way they interact with music. He’s personally excited to see the drones form the letters USA in red, white and blue as Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful” plays in the background.