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South Jordan Journal

Dazzling the skies: Drone light shows take flight

Sep 11, 2023 03:05PM ● By Peri Kinder

Cottonwood Heights residents enjoyed the city’s first drone show during Butlerville Days, as more cities explore drone show options. (Photo courtesy of Cottonwood Heights)

During the Cottonwood Heights Butlerville Days celebration, a merging of lights and technology took center stage in the night sky. Residents gathered to watch a mesmerizing drone show, where art and innovation collide. 

Cottonwood Heights Culture Manager Ann Eatchel added the drone show to this year’s celebration after meeting with Open Sky, a drone light show company. She wanted to bring a new element to the annual celebration and offer an alternative to fireworks.

Not quite breaking with tradition, Eatchel scheduled the drone show for Friday night and the regular fireworks show for Saturday. There was mixed reaction from residents for both shows. 

“Some people left the drone show saying that was the coolest thing ever…It didn’t have the loud noises that can scare pets and it doesn’t leave the smoke and pollution a fireworks show does,” Eatchel said. “And then I had people say no, I’m a fireworks person. I gotta have the booms, gotta have the sparkles. So it totally went both ways.”

Cities across Salt Lake County are choosing drone shows over fireworks for celebrations. Salt Lake City held a drone show for its Fourth of July event and the city of South Jordan teamed with LiveDAYBREAK to bring a drone show to city residents. 

Nate Mortensen, Open Sky CEO, said demand for drone shows has increased significantly. Last year, the company did about 30 shows, but now they’re doing that many each month. He says comparing drone shows to fireworks is an apples to oranges situation. While drones can’t replicate the pop and sizzle of fireworks, the show provides cities with the ability to personalize the production and tell a story. 

“We customize and change the show to match the theme of each event that we fly and use this as a storytelling opportunity as opposed to just entertainment,” Mortensen said. “If you can imagine staring at the sky and seeing shooting stars or meteors crossing the sky, it happens so quick, but you really remember that experience. A drone show is 10 to 13 minutes of choreographed shooting stars that you're watching in the sky.”

A customized drone show’s cost can be equivalent to a fireworks show, usually starting around $15,000, based on the number of drones used. Most city shows average 150 drones but Open Sky has created shows using hundreds of drones at a six-figure cost. 

Proponents of drone shows say drones are better for the environment and safer for residents than traditional fireworks. But while a fireworks show can last up to 30 minutes, a drone show lasts about half that time. 

Each drone costs thousands of dollars and battery life lasts about 14 minutes. Mortensen has found that’s a great length of time to keep the audience engaged without losing their attention.

The Cottonwood Heights event featured 150 drones with music and was customized to include the city’s logo and the logo of two event sponsors. If she has her way, Eatchel would love to offer both a drone and fireworks show at next year’s Butlerville Days. 

“I have a whole plan if the council wants to move forward,” she said. “But I’m here to do what the council wants, what the Butlerville Days committee wants and what the public wants.” 

As drone technology evolves, Mortensen expects the Open Sky shows to bring more creativity, choreography and customization to his clients. He’s excited to see what comes next and he challenges everyone to get out to see a drone show in person.

“Watching [a drone show] online is a great way to see it. But it’s much different in person when you see the size and the scale of these formations that are hundreds of feet wide and hundreds of feet tall. It’s really something to behold,” he said. “The most common takeaway we hear from people after a show is they didn't know what to expect….It just exceeds their expectations when they finally see one in person.” λ