Can you attach fireworks to drones? Sky Elements just got FAA approval to do it

Will drones replace fireworks? Drone show company Sky Elements is betting that drones won’t necessarily replace fireworks, but that they’ll make fireworks even better. Or perhaps it’s that fireworks will make drone shows even better. Either way, that’s all because the Texas-based entertainment company has devised a way to attach fireworks to drones.

And in May 2024, Sky Elements received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to legally do it. That makes Sky Elements the first company in the U.S. to earn government approval to attach fireworks to drones.

The FAA approval ushers in what could be a new era in drone shows. Traditionally, drone light shows use pre-programmed drones to fly into designated shapes and change colors at specific times, all creating a mesmerizing display of coordinated lights. We’ve seen drone shows fly in the formation of Baby Yoda to promote Disney+. Drones dominated the Super Bowl LVIII, which was held in Las Vegas, by flying in multiple shows into shapes like football players and the iconic Las Vegas sign.

But technology-pusher Sky Elements has taken the concept a step further with their “pyro drone shows.”

Everything to know about the new Sky Elements pyro drone shows

What is a pyro drone show?

Pyro drone shows combine classic drone light formations with select drones equipped with pyrotechnic devices. These devices can be triggered during the performance, creating effects like cascading waterfalls and shooting stars.

“This new form of aerial entertainment will surely have some jaws on the floor as we introduce the country to pyro drone shows,” according to a statement from Sky Elements.

Sky Elements gave more insight into how these work in action with a sample ‘show’ involving 300 drones flying over its test field. Check it out here:

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Sky Elements said it had been working on the waiver for 26 months before the FAA granted them approval to attach fireworks to drones.

What drones does Sky Elements use in its pyro shows?

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A grid layout of UVify drones prepares for a Sky Elements drone show. Photo by Sally French

Skydio uses light show drones from UVify, which is an American drone company based in Seattle. For this show, it uses the UVify IFO and the UVify IFO-P. The IFO-P can have up to 12 pyrotechnics devices.

UVify designed the pyro drones under what Sky Elements called “a meticulous four-stage process to ensure optimal functionality and safety.” The retrofitted drones include safety features such as a locking mechanism on the mount, plus an extra cable tie for redundancy. The mounts are heat resistant ,which is critical given the ignition and burning of pyrotechnics.

UVify sells its IFO drone to the public at $1,685 per drone (though presumably you’d buy a lot more than one drone). With that, you get a turnkey system that  includes everything an operator needs to run their show. That entails RTK, cases, WiFi, cables, software and 24/7 support.

As far as the show itself, it’s all programmed using software built upon PX4. PX4 is an open-source flight control software widely used in the drone world.

How pyro drone shows combine fireworks with drones

There are plenty of examples of drone shows where fireworks are also involved. For example, Sky Elements put on a Star Wars drone show at the Oakland Coliseum last fall in what was the first time that pyrotechnics had complemented its shows.

Coincidentally, that was the first drone light show I ever saw in-person. And in that show, drones made shapes of icons such as an AT-AT. They even flew a reenactment of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in a light saber battle. The fireworks offered bonus thrill, such as when they blasted off when the AT-AT made its crash landing, and when lightsabers collided.

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Concept art for CineSational: A Symphonic Spectacular, the drone show at Universal Orlando.

Since then, we’ve seen a proliferation of drone shows that are highly advanced. Multiple theme parks are set to launch drone shows this summer, many of which come in tandem with fireworks. Anticipation is high for CineSational: A Symphonic Spectacular, the nighttime show at Universal Studios Orlando. It’ll feature 600 drones flying to iconic movie soundtracks such as “Harry Potter” and “Ghostbusters.” But tha’t snot all. The full sensory experience also entails dancing water fountains on the lagoon in the center of the theme park, fireworks, and projection mapping on the buildings around the lagoon.

Similarly, the spring 2023 Marvel drone show at the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris used a mix of fireworks, projections and drones.

Then there’s Disney Electrical Sky Parade, the drone show at Disneyland Paris. It launched in January 2024 and plays most nights through the summer. That drone show was intended to serve as a pre-show to the theme parks fireworks spectacular. Though, many fans say the drone show is better than the actual fireworks show.

Leveling up the quality of drone shows

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5,293 drones fly in the air at once for what marked a Guinness World Record-breaking drone show, done in May 2024. Photo courtesy of UVify.

The past year has seen a huge explosion in the quality of drone shows. Incorporating fireworks into drone shows has been one way to level up the quality of drone shows. We’re also seeing bigger shows.

In fact, UVify set a massive record in May 2024 when it flew 5,293 drones in a drone light show. Guinness World Record confirmed the feat. To put it in perspective, Guinness World Record confirmed what was once a record in 2016, when Intel flew a mere 500 drones at one time in a drone show. More drones enables more complex, detailed animations that move more smoothly and offer a more 3D effect.

This has generated a range in drone show quality. There’s the possibility of small town, simple shows — yet also intricate, theme park quality shows. These days, you can easily put on your own drone show for $10,000. That’s thanks to relatively easy tools like the Drone Light Show Course from Drone Dojo, which is centered around the $900 PiHawk drone kit. (You’d want at least 10 drones to put on a drone show, hence the $10,000 estimate.) You might also purchase light show drones for about $2,000 per drone. Of course, that would necessitate a bigger budget — but less need for DIY.

No longer necessarily a replacement to fireworks

Much of the narrative around drone shows is how they can be a replacement to fireworks. They have less environmental impact, and they’re not as noisy.

They’re also generally cheaper. A small town holiday fireworks display costs an estimated $2,000 to $7,000. Meanwhile, a major theme fireworks production costs an estimated $33,000 per show. Given that drone shows can cost far less given that they’re mostly a fixed cost (drones can be re-used, while fireworks can only be used ones), many of touted the financial benefits of drone shows.

And sure, standalone drone light shows are still great. But this new era ushers in an entertainment experience that leverages both.

And for what it’s worth, attaching fireworks to drones has it’s benefits. Since the fireworks launch from the air rather than the ground (as is typical), they’ll still be quieter to people on the ground. They’re also safer since they won’t be launching near people.

How to see a pyro drone show for yourself

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Image courtesy of Sky Elements

Sky Elements hasn’t publicly shared where there next show involving fireworks attached to drones will run. Though, they stated in a blog post that they’ve “got some plans for these coming up.”

Conveniently, Fourth of July is not far away, which tends to be prime time for drone shows. In fact, Sky Elements says it flew forty drone shows during the 2023 July Fourth holiday weekend. The company says it’s set to fly double that number this year.

For what it’s worth, you can ensure you see one by booking one yourself. The company said you can use its contact form to get more information on incorporating a pyro drone show into your next event.

And if you’re looking to see any sort of drone show this year — not necessarily a pyro drone show — check out my guide to how to watch a drone light show in 2024. It lists all sorts of public events that will include drone shows. There’s tons out there, including festivals, rodeos and baseball games.

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