When the first Honda Celebration of Light splashed above English Bay in 1990, it was known as the Symphony of Fire, there were no electric car chargers in parking lots, no carbon taxes charged at gas pumps and no separated bike lanes criss-crossing downtown streets and bridges.
Drone shows have started to replace 4th of July fireworks displays south of the border. But don’t expect the green revolution to replace old fashioned fireworks anytime soon for Vancouver’s biggest public event, which returns July 23, 27 and 30 from a two-year pandemic pause.
“In the short term, no, adding a drone show would really only just add expense,” said Celebration of Light producer Paul Runnals of Brandlive Management Group.
Runnals said there aren’t significant fleets of drones in Western Canada and downtown Vancouver has few large, convenient lots necessary for take-off and landing.
“In time, and as the drone technology gets to a point where it's both financially viable and logistically viable, I think there may start to be more and more pressure on some of these big shows,” Runnals said. “But it's hard to say if that’s three years away or 10 years away.”
Vancouver got a taste of the future in 2017, when Ontario company Arrowonics produced a nightly drone show instead of fireworks at the Pacific National Exhibition Fair.
The main selling point for drone shows is the obvious replacement of fireworks pollution, both smoke and sound. The latter scares pets and wildlife, and even humans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The former has been linked to lung and heart ailments. There is also the remote risk of sparking a wildfire.
“It’s the new, shiny thing everybody wants,” said Jeff Clarmo, CEO of Waterloo, Ont.-based drone and fireworks company North Star Entertainment and vice-president of Virginia-based Pixis Drones. “It’s environmentally the way to go and, because of the pandemic, people are starting to listen to the scientists. A lot more global warming, look at the summer around the world, It’s insane how dry and hot everything is.”
Pyrotechnics industry veteran Clarmo said his company has a fleet of 900 drones, but has few competitors. It costs around half-a-million-dollars to set-up a 100-drone system, he said, and drone shows can cost three times more than a traditional fireworks display. While Celebration of Light fireworks are 20-25 minutes, a drone show can only last 10-12 minutes, due to battery life.
Clarmo admits fireworks are “on the downward spiral,” partly due to social media backlash.
“Back in the day, everybody loved the good firework show, the odd person complained but with social media, everybody gets on the bandwagon, about their dogs and their pollution and the birds, and the environment,” he said. “And they're not wrong, they’re not wrong.”
A 2014 study in Wuhan University in China found dramatic increases in particulate matter from Lunar New Year fireworks displays and that it took more than 15 hours for contaminant levels to return to pre-celebration levels. In Spain, the Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research released a 2010 study that wondered “is the cocktail worth the show?”
Fireworks displays added the burden of smoke emissions to already contaminated urban air, putting people with pre-existing respiratory or heart conditions at greater risk. “The metalliferous and highly respirable nature of fireworks emissions makes them per se hazardous to the general population,” said the Spanish study.
The Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation said it has not conducted a formal study of the environmental impacts of the Celebration of Light nor has it formally considered a drone show.
Park Board chair Camil Dumont and city hall’s climate policy manager Matt Horne did not respond for comment. Neither did Coun. Adriane Carr or Coun. Christine Boyle.
Clarmo said drone shows are rapidly winning over skeptics. In June, North Star produced a drone show to open L’International des Feux Loto-Québec fireworks festival in Montreal.
“It's a big step for these fireworks guys to actually say, you know, this is a real thing, because a lot of them, especially in the early years, were pooh-poohing it,” Clarmo said.