Among the starbursts, strobes and other pyrotechnics of an Independence Day fireworks show, a new illumination can increasingly be spotted in the sky — the blinking red light of a drone as it captures spectacular footage from a bird’s eye view.
Fireworks drone videos have become a Fourth of July tradition as commonplace as backyard barbecues and three-legged races. YouTube is replete with dazzling footage as drones soar above, alongside or even through the fiery bursts.
"My whole life I’ve dreamed about what fireworks look like from the other side," said Jesse Strote, 33, who filmed Lockport’s Monday night show from 400 feet above the ground. "We’re programmed to look up at fireworks. This was my first opportunity to get a different vantage point … to see something I’ve never been able to see before."
The footage can be stunning and incredibly popular — one video shot in the middle of an unnamed city’s display has amassed more than 15 million views on YouTube— but like so much with drones, the rules governing this genre of filmmaking are nebulous.
The Federal Aviation Administration discourages drone-flying near fireworks displays — "Remember that fireworks and drones don’t mix," the agency tweeted last week — but hasn’t banned the activity outright.
Spokeswoman Lynn Lunsford, though, said rules that are in place ought to curb the activity. They include a prohibition on flying above crowds of people, a mandate that pilots must keep their drones within sight and, if the footage is being shot for commercial purposes, a requirement to get authorization to fly at night.
"Flying over fireworks (at night) is difficult to do without violating at least one or more of these," she said.
But that leaves some room for amateur drone pilots to ply their craft, and judging by the videos piling up on YouTube, the allure is only growing stronger.
Dean Wagner Jr., 28, sent his drone aloft Monday night to film Bloomingdale’s fireworks at the invitation of the technician running the show. Hovering about 100 feet away from the bursts, his DJI Phantom 3 Professional quadcopter recorded surreal, vibrant colors streaking the sky.
"It went so well I definitely want to do it again," said Wagner, a graduate student in environmental science who has pursued drone photography for four years. "Being able to get that close really made for great footage."
Bloomingdale police said they weren’t aware that a drone was aloft to film the show. The village manager couldn’t be reached for comment.
Not every venue welcomes drones. Navy Pier, which offers fireworks shows throughout the summer, does not allow pilots to operate the aircraft from its property, though a few online drone videos show the pier’s pyrotechnics from a distance.
Spokeswoman Payal Patel said the airspace around the nearby water plant is an official no-fly zone, and the pier reduces the risk of violating that rule by prohibiting drones (police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said inappropriate drone use hasn’t been a widespread problem in the city).
A drone captures footage of the Bloomingdale fireworks July 3, 2017. (Dean Wagner Jr.)
As the technology develops, drones are being used for more than just recording pyrotechnic footage. Disney Enterprises has patented a drone that would discharge fireworks from the air. On the flip side, the Bakersfield, Calif., fire department uses a drone to pinpoint the location of illegal firework launches.
And one day, some envision, drones might do away with fireworks altogether.
Intel is developing swarms of drones that fly in coordinated patterns, creating kinetic light shows above music festivals and special events. Its chief executive, Brian Krzanich, told a technology conference last year that the tiny aircraft could become a spectacle in their own right.
"I see a future where fireworks and all their risks of smoke and dirt are a thing of the past, and they’re replaced by shows that have unlimited creativity and potential … powered by drones," he said.