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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Fireworks have a new competitor: Drones

A drone light show during the concert at Windsor Castle celebrating the coronation of King Charles III.

By Lauren Hirsch

Like many in the fireworks industry, Stephen Vitale is in the family business. He runs a fifth-generation company, Pyrotecnico, in New Castle, Pennsylvania. In October, he struck a surprising alliance with Nova Sky Stories, the drone company that Kimbal Musk acquired from Intel.

Increasingly, drones are lighting up skybound entertainment shows. Flocks of flying robots have created magical illusions everywhere from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to the coronation of King Charles III this spring. And the global drone light show market, which was virtually nonexistent a decade ago, was valued at about $1 billion in 2021, according to Allied Market Research.

Drone shows are in some ways the newer, hipper brand of fireworks. And they’re quieter, safer and better for the environment.

Fireworks providers like Vitale face a tough decision: Invest in the expensive equipment and regulatory clearance required to get into the drone business, or believe that demand for fireworks will remain steady even as a new type of competition skyrockets.

Change is coming. Fireworks providers bring in most of their revenue around the Fourth of July. And some of the organizers of those events are shifting to drones. Places such as Salt Lake City and Boulder, Colorado, plan to use them instead of fireworks for Independence Day celebrations this year, citing the reduced risk of forest fires and pollution.

But not everyone is convinced the light shows will suffice as a replacement. Galveston, Texas, is reverting to fireworks after using drones in 2022. And Reddit pages about the drawbacks of drone shows bemoan the fact that drones don’t evoke the booming sounds that fireworks do.

“Drones are much more sophisticated,” said Chris Hopkins, who co-owns Celebration Fireworks and Star Flight Drone Shows. “They just don’t have the same visceral reaction.”

Pivoting is a big investment. Hopkins invested in drones last year, eager to take advantage of the creative liberties they offered. “In the past, I could have hinted at the Demogorgon,” he told DealBook, referring to a monster in the Netflix show “Stranger Things.” “Now I can have the Demogorgon.”

It was an expensive gambit: Drones cost more than $1,500 each, and he soon learned that a good show required at least 75. Then there was the hassle of filling out a nearly 200-page application to the Federal Aviation Administration for regulatory clearance and finding people skilled at flying the devices.

Some companies are sticking with fireworks. “I know there are some companies that are doing that — I guess our philosophy is we’re going to do what we do best,” Heather Gobet of Western Display, a fourth-generation fireworks company in Oregon, told DealBook.

Gobet, who bought the business from her parents about eight years ago, has decided that dealing with the expertise, certifications and expense of acquiring drones is prohibitive. Instead, she will team up with companies that offer drone shows when customers demand them.

Besides, she has other challenges to worry about: The industry is grappling with supply chain snarls, labor shortages, an aging generation of pyrotechnic experts and costly compliance.

There’s hope for industry harmony. Drones can be used for advertising in a way that fireworks cannot — say, by displaying a corporate logo above a busy road. Many shows, like a Democratic celebration of the 2020 presidential election result, feature both drones and fireworks.

But growing competition is opening up opportunities, said Rick Boss, who runs Sky Elements, a nearly 3-year-old drone show company. Larger traditional fireworks companies are looking to expand or go into new realms like drones, while smaller fireworks businesses are struggling.

“There are companies that are shrinking, maybe even stepping out of it — and so that creates opportunity,” he said. “It’s a good time to be aggressive.”

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