Last year, Brianna Santos and her family didn’t leave home for the Fourth of July. Stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California, Santos and her husband, a senior airman with the 60th Civil Engineer Squadron, have seven children, five of whom have specialized medical needs. Her youngest daughter has a tracheostomy tube. Getting into a nearby town for a fireworks show was logistically overwhelming; even if they’d made it, the sounds and lights were overwhelming to some of her older kids.
The Santoses are just one of 1,000 families stationed at Travis who participate the Exceptional Family Member Program, which offers additional support for active personnel who have dependents who require ongoing medical care, be it physical or psychological. This year, they’ll celebrate Independence Day on base, thanks in part to a drone-powered light show that promises all the spectacle of a traditional fireworks display but far fewer complications.
“Having it here on base, it really reduces that stress,” Santos says. “Just being somewhere familiar.”
You might remember the Intel Shooting Star drones from the Pyeongchang Olympics Opening Ceremony in February and Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime show in 2017. On Wednesday night, 500 of the foot-long, 8-ounce quadcopters will ascend over an open field near the edge of Travis Air Force Base (weather permitting—winds have been picking up this week), dodging and zipping though a preprogrammed show that includes simulated fireworks, sure, but also custom-crafted imagery, like a pixelated homage to the KC-10 and C-17 aircraft that call Travis home.
Putting It Together
A number of factors make traditional fireworks impractical for the base, home to 10,000 active duty personnel and their family members, who bring the total population to 26,000. There’s the climate, first of all; fires start too easily in Northern California to send sparks flying with confidence. And then there’s the high concentration of EFMP members, for many of whom a fireworks show is untenable. Last year, rather than host a Fourth of July event, the base directed people to celebrations in nearby towns.
In early May this year, though, leaders at Travis had a thought that quickly turned into a revelation. The base has an existing relationship with Intel through its “grassroots innovation” program called Phoenix Spark. Having seen Intel’s glossy drone productions in the past, they wondered if there might be an opportunity to do the same for Travis. The timing felt right: This year also marks the base’s 75th anniversary.
That may seem like a short timeline in which to organize an original drone display, but the Shooting Star system allows for quick work. An animator choreographs a routine using 3-D design software, and each drone gets mapped onto an individual pixel. That also allows for a lot more flexibility than a traditional fireworks display might; imagination becomes the main limiting factor.
“A light show is a lot more than digitized fireworks. Fireworks have certain shapes and categorizations that come with what you can visualize with fireworks,” says Anil Nanduri, general manager of Intel’s drone group. “You can do all that visualization with drones, as well, but a lot more. You can put letters, you can put logos and animations. You can put stories in the sky.”
That flexibility means that while Wednesday’s show will be the first Intel drone light show to sub in for traditional Fourth of July fireworks, it won’t be a one-to-one replacement. It adds those planes, as well as an American flag, a hashtag with special significance to the base, and a few other custom touches, all by special request.
“We gave them a series of images that we were hoping to incorporate into the show,” says Captain Lyndsey Horn, chief of public affairs for the 60th Air Mobility Wing. “We basically provided those images, and they created the show around that.”
The most important difference from traditional fireworks, though, will be its inclusiveness. Drones may not pack quite the same visceral wallop as literal explosions in the sky, but they’ll help the Santos family and many others at Travis celebrate the Fourth in a way they haven’t been able to for years.
Travis provides a compelling backdrop for a drone light show, but quadcopters aren’t likely to displace traditional fireworks displays anytime soon. While Nanduri notes that a Shooting Star show has more customization options and less of an environmental impact than pointing colorful boom-rockets toward the heavens, the drones come with some caveats.
There’s the wind, first of all; anything greater than 18 miles per hour or so will scuttle the flight. Current battery technology also allows for maximum duration of only about 20 minutes. Most shows come in well under that, between four and seven minutes a pop. That may feel slight next to the sustained quake of a fireworks display. And then there’s the cost: Nanduri says an individual Shooting Star drone show can run up a six-figure tab. (Intel will provide the Travis display free of charge.)
That said, Intel’s swarm has started making appearances apart from the globally significant sporting events where they first gained notice. They showed up at Pride Week in San Francisco in June and at Coachella before that. And like any new technology, each iteration helps expand capabilities and drive down cost.
“With drones, they’re reusable. You have to look at the economics of it as value creation. They’re not just about doing a one-off fireworks display; you can do a lot more with it,” Nanduri says. “The economics work based on reuse of the platform.”
Long-term prospects aside, though, Wednesday’s drone light show at Travis Air Force Base highlights a benefit that has no dollar sign attached.
“There’s lots of families with kids on base, mine included, where you can’t take them to your typical fireworks show, because the sounds and the lights of the show can be very overwhelming,” Santos says. “We really appreciate that they have this.”