When 300 drones took off last weekend over Lake Sunapee to execute a complicated dance of LED lights over the water, entertaining folks with an pre-Independence Day alternative to a fireworks show, it was a sign of the times.

Well, maybe.

“Our most busy time of year is right now. There’s a huge movement away from fireworks,” said Jim Christopherson, director of business development for Skyworx, the Colorado firm that ran weekend drone shows for both the Sunapee Yacht Club and the town of Sunapee.

Sunapee was one of the first New Hampshire communities – maybe the first, I’m not sure – to replace its Independence Day week end fireworks show with drones.

“I thought the show was spectacular. It really exceeded my expectations,” said Ken Fajans, communications coordinator for the Lake Sunapee Yacht Club. The club had a show over the weekend as did the town of Sunapee.

The show, with 300 drones, was typical in size for a big public show these days, Christopher said, adding that not long ago, 100 drones at a time was the maximum. Skyworx also does smaller shows for celebrations like weddings or gender-reveal parties.

Skyworx, one of a number of companies that put on these shows, uses specialized quadcopter drones, “about the size of a Frisbee” that lack cameras and are festooned with LED lights. Importantly, they have GPS connectivity not to the three or so satellites used by our cellphones to determine position but to “a minimum of 14, normally about 35” satellites.

“Our margin of error for these drones is about 1-2 centimeters. When we say, go sit in that exact location, it does. It doesn’t move,” Christopherson said.

I had assumed that the drones in these shows were communicating with each other so they wouldn’t collide, but not so.

As Christopherson explained it, shows are designed on software – “think of it like Photoshop, Blender” – that takes an idea like the outline of the Statue of Liberty or a moving figure of a person and figures out the exact position that each drone needs to take at each moment to make it happen. Then other software breaks this file into multiple different pieces, creating separate versions that are sent to each drone.

“People think we’re doing one big show but we’re really doing 300 individual shows. Every drone doesn’t even know there are any other drones that exist,” said Christopherson.

As with all electric machines, drones are limited by battery technology. Drones like those at Sunapee can do a show of up to 15 minutes, depending on the weather. Shows can handle winds of up to 25 mph but have to work harder, which shortens their time in the air. Extreme cold or extreme heat also affects battery performance.

The drones have geofences, software that keeps them from traveling outside the demonstration area, and can be individually controlled if something goes awry with them, getting lowered to the ground or “frozen” in place in the air.

The town of Sunapee and the Yacht Club made the switch for environmental reasons spurred by people worried about the future of the lake. They noted that a fact sheet from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services says debris from fireworks can be “a potential source of chemical contaminants to the water body,” including phosphorus and nitrogen compounds “that contribute to algal and plant growth in lakes.”

Drone shows are also quieter than fireworks displays, ending concern about the effect on people with PTSD or on pets, and they don’t have the same possibility of accidentally igniting the surroundings.

Avoiding accidental wildfires is a big selling point in parts of the country struggling with climate change-induced drought, where fireworks may be banned in summer. “We’re hammered on the West Coast,” Christopherson said.

The town of Sunapee says their show cost $16,000, roughly similar to a fireworks show. Like any new-ish technology, that price has come down sharply in recent years.

Despite all the advantages, even fans of drone light shows admit they lack the visceral impact of a fireworks show. The burst of colors and lights, the booms, crackles, whistles and other noises, and the whole idea of watching potentially dangerous explosions give fireworks an undeniable appeal, something that no amount of 3-D software and flying technology can match. I don’t think New Hampshire’s own Atlas Fireworks has anything to worry about, at least not in the short term.

In fact, I’m worried about drone shows for another reason: They’re so efficient and impressive that I’m afraid they’ll start cropping up everywhere.

Imagine wandering outside your White Mountain vacation cabin to enjoy the night sky, only to have a bunch of LED drones sent up by the local restaurant, advertising their 2-for-1 specials. Sounds crazy but so did the possibility of commercials playing while you pumped your gas. If it can make a buck, it might happen.

We’re not there yet, however. Hopefully, we never will be.

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