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In some places, swarms of drones have replaced Fourth of July fireworks

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Big fireworks displays are a staple for many Fourth of July celebrations, but a hotter and drier climate in the West is making it too dangerous to set them off. So more places are now switching to a less flammable alternative. Colorado Public Radio's Matt Bloom has more.

GRAHAM HILL: Connected. They're looking good. OK. I'll check the preflight there.

MATT BLOOM, BYLINE: Graham Hill is sitting at a computer overlooking a big grassy field in suburban Denver, where he's just finished setting up a small army of drones for takeoff. There's 20 to be exact, each about the size of toy cars with four propeller blades.

HILL: We're looking good on the map.

BLOOM: They're arranged in a five-by-four grid on the ground, each fixed with a lightbulb that's currently flashing a bright blue color in unison. When they finish syncing together, they start beeping.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONES BEEPING)

BLOOM: Hill then presses the spacebar on his laptop, and...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONES WHIRRING)

BLOOM: They take off into the sky in perfect synchronization. Once they're about 50 feet up, their lights change to different colors of the rainbow and float around to form different shapes in midair.

HILL: So we've got, like, a diamond shape and then a circle shape. We're standing almost right under it. And so sometimes it can look like they're about to hit each other, but they're actually all about 10 feet apart at all times.

BLOOM: Hill's Colorado-based company, Hire UAV Pro, puts on drone shows all over the world. It's still a niche industry but growing fast, Hill says. Communities from Colorado to California have hired his team to design patriotic shows to replace their traditional fireworks. They've gotten more requests than they could handle this year from places concerned about fire danger, from Idaho to New Mexico to Texas.

HILL: As soon as we turned on our website and started advertising and putting a couple of videos out there, it's - I mean, we probably had like 300, 400 requests for the Fourth of July.

BLOOM: The shows only last about 15 minutes due to limited battery life. Jeremy Gross, an event coordinator with the town of Vail, says they spent about $100,000 on this year's show - three times more than fireworks would cost.

JEREMY GROSS: 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.

BLOOM: They're worth it, Gross says, because they're less likely to start a catastrophic wildfire and less prone to last-minute cancellations due to high fire danger. Plus, they can make formations that people likely haven't seen before.

GROSS: You can put an eagle in the sky, and the eagle actually flaps its wings. You know, the Old Glory - when you put the flag up, it waves, and it, you know, moves and can transition.

BLOOM: Some towns, though, are sticking with traditional fireworks, but with additional safety precautions. Estes Park, on the outskirts of Rocky Mountain National Park, is shooting their fireworks over a large lake as a safety measure, says town spokeswoman Kate Rusch.

KATE RUSCH: I feel lucky that we have a large body of water. That's a big deal for us.

BLOOM: Back at the July 4th show rehearsal, Graham Hill wraps up his test flight.

HILL: It feels good every time.

BLOOM: He says he only sees demand going up as communities look for ways to adapt to a drier climate, even if the shows are missing some of the traditional elements of fireworks, like the loud booms and a big, bright finale.

HILL: We're like the iPhone One of drone light shows right now. And I expect in five years, we're going to be able to do a near-hour-long drone show.

BLOOM: They will still have his favorite part, though - the music. He's personally excited to see the drones form the letters U-S-A in red, white and blue as Ray Charles' version of "America The Beautiful" plays in the background. For NPR News, I'm Matt Bloom in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matt Bloom
Matt is a passionate journalist who loves nothing more than good reporting, music and comedy. At KUNC, he covers breaking news stories and the economy. He’s also reported for KPCC and KCRW in Los Angeles. As NPR’s National Desk intern in Culver City during the summer of 2015, he produced one of the first episodes of Embedded, the NPR podcast hosted by Kelly McEvers where reporters take a story from the headlines and “go deep.”