The future of fireworks

Thought leadership
red lights going up into the sky, made by drones
The search for a more sustainable light show is on. Widely hailed as a futuristic and a low-pollution alternative to traditional fireworks, drone displays are gaining popularity. In this article, we explore whether drone technology is a viable alternative. 

Fireworks have been a traditional part of holidays and celebrations for centuries. But every year, there are reports of accidents and injuries related to fireworks. The environmental impact associated with bonfire night celebrations is also significant. Fireworks are single use and and levels of air pollution after bonfire night, especially in densely populated areas, are often four times greater than typical levels. So, is it time to rethink the fireworks display?

The history of fireworks

The discovery of fireworks, approximately 2,000 years ago in China, is thought to have happened by chance when a cook accidentally mixed three common kitchen ingredients. The mixture was developed into a firecracker which became an essential part of Chinese festivities and thought to be powerful enough to expel evil spirits. In 1295, Marco Polo brought fireworks to Europe from Asia and as Europeans travelled to the New World, so did their firework recipes.

On July 4, 1777, the first anniversary of the day the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, fireworks became a Fourth of July tradition. To this day, events around the world use fireworks as part of their celebrations; guaranteed to thrill and make for a spectacular finish, they are a key way to mark the occasion.

A modern firework consists of a tube containing gunpowder and many small pods, called stars. Each star holds fuel, an oxidising agent, a binder, metal salts or oxides for colour and a fuse. Each star makes one dot in the explosion. Fireworks contain a variety of harmful chemicals, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide. 

Lights in the sky, in the shape of a corgi dog above Buckingham palace
Light display in the shape of a dragon

A new way to celebrate

In contrast, drones do not release any harmful chemicals into the atmosphere, generate very little noise pollution and they can be controlled much more precisely than traditional fireworks. With advancement in processing power and the ability for drones to communicate with one another, shows may soon be able to self-organise and make autonomous decisions.

In 2012, the first drone art display took place in Linz, Austria. The highly publicised display in Shanghai, to mark the start of the new decade in 2020, featured 2,000 drones taking off then creating shapes such as an animated running man figure. During the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics 1,824 drones were launched into the sky, replicating the Games’ kabuki-inspired checkered emblem before transitioning into a giant blue and white orb that represented planet Earth. 

Let us cast our minds back to the mesmerising aerial display for Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee earlier this year, where 400 drones lit up the sky with images of corgis and cups of tea above Buckingham Palace. This spectacle used a combination of robotics, 3D environment simulation and aeronautical engineering. To ensure safety at Buckingham Palace was maintained, the drones featured two geofences which prevented them from crashing into one another – if one hit a geofence, it powered down and lowered to the ground. 

While some may pander to the nostalgia of smoky back gardens and the excitement of a whizzing Catherine Wheel, drone technology is evolving to offer a green, reusable, and more comfortable experience, without noise and smoke pollution and posing less of a risk of injury to people and the local environment. Increasingly, Fourth of July firework shows are being replaced with drones due to extreme drought conditions and wildfire concerns. Communities are questioning whether throwing lit objects up into the sky in the height of the fire season is the best thing to do.

Imagine a future Bonfire Night, New Year’s Eve or Fourth of July celebration, the air abuzz with cutting-edge technology illuminating the night sky with jaw-dropping visual displays that take your breath away – just not quite so literally. Will fireworks be fizzling out to make way for this clean technology? Are fireworks on the brink of taking on a new life, with less crackle and more visual pop? Perhaps the switch will happen sooner than we think.