January 01, 2020 01:33:02
Australians will ring in the new year with a bang tonight — literally — as fireworks light up many cities.
But what if they didn’t?
What if the blasts were instead buzzing drones, all carefully choreographed to put on a spectacular light show?
Cities around the world are increasingly turning to the idea. And as Canberra cancels its fireworks display due to fire bans and Sydney faces a backlash over its display, could Australia follow suit?
Firstly, what are we talking about?
The concept is simple: hundreds or even thousands of little drones are fitted with lights and sent into the sky to produce a show.
They’re controlled by a computer on the ground and can be made to create anything from flags to people or just flashy designs.
The drones can weigh as little as 330 grams and in the last five years companies have really ramped up production, experimenting with the idea.
A 2016 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated the commercial value of drones for purely entertainment and media purposes was $US8.8 billion — and going up.
OK, show me
Chances are you’ve already seen a version of this and not even realised.
Two years ago pop superstar Lady Gaga kicked off her NFL Superbowl half-time show with a dazzling display of 300 drones creating an American flag behind her.
A year later, tech giant Intel used a then record 1,218 lightweight drones at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics opening ceremony to display a snowboarder, a dove and the Olympic rings.
Intel have been playing with this technology for a while, and in July last year used 1,500 drones to create a night show in California.
“It’s a new form of storytelling, it’s sort of like digital fireworks,” an Intel spokeswoman told America’s ABC News.
“The possibilities are endless. You literally have a point of light — multiple points of light — that you can control in the sky and it’s something that can create such a beautiful experience.
“That’s what we want to create across the world.”
China also hosted a drone display at a tech expo earlier this year, and Australian music trio Pnau used them in their music video for the song All Of Us.
Why is this being done?
A lot of the time it’s just because it looks cool.
But an increasing number of cities around the world are ditching fireworks in favour of drones to address an issue.
Earlier this year parts of America’s west were ravaged by drought, and communities feared traditional Independence Day fireworks were a wildfire risk in the dry conditions.
Aspen Chamber Resort Association president Debbie Braun told the New York Times the town resorted to drones.
“This year we realised it was a low snow year, so we realised we were going to be at risk. So we started innovating,” she said.
In India, air pollution had become so bad the country’s Supreme Court banned most fireworks for the Hindu festival of lights in October, fearing toxic particles would make the problem worse.
China tried to do the same thing in 400 cities and towns during the Chinese New Year in 2018.
And a town in Canada opted for a “quiet” light show last year to protect animals that could become frightened by fireworks.
So, will it happen in Australia?
Maybe. And in little bits.
But a wholesale replacing of fireworks with drones looks a long way off.
For starters, the City of Sydney wouldn’t say if the idea of drones had even been discussed.
A spokesperson did say they were playing with lighting effects at its show tonight.
“This year we are attempting to create the brightest beam in the southern hemisphere shooting up from the Sydney Harbour Bridge,” the spokesperson said.
“[It will sit] alongside our world-renowned fireworks and stunning pylon projections.”
Then there are the tech hurdles.
Currently, most drones can only be flown in certain weather conditions and really cold temperatures can also drain the batteries quickly.
There’s also the question of cost, and whether launching hundreds or thousands of drones would be any cheaper than the record $5.8 million Sydney spent on its fireworks display last New Year’s Eve.
But perhaps the deciding question will be more philosophical.
Australian visual artist and filmmaker Matthew Sleeth used drones in his 2015 multimedia performance work, A Drone Opera.
People were led into cages (partly for their own safety) and presented with a confronting light display and drones, which was used as a commentary on the way we fear and fetishize new technology.
So when he hears people advocate drones being used on a large scale for entertainment, he’s a little cautious.
“Maybe ‘why’ is the question we should ask,” he said.
“Using drones instead of fireworks is a great solution without a problem.”
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December 31, 2019 05:00:23
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