Dozens of drones glowing different colors glowing and forming the shape of the United States over buildings
Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein was inspired to bring a drone show to his city after seeing one at the United States Conference of Mayors. Photo courtesy of Larry Klein.

In the heart of Silicon Valley and the middle of a heat wave, one city hopes to use new technologies to emulate a classic Fourth of July tradition.

Instead of fireworks, Sunnyvale is hosting a drone light show at Baylands Park at 6:30 p.m. City officials said the drone show will be safer and more environmentally friendly than fireworks, which increase the risk of wildfires and cause a noticeable decrease in air quality.

Mayor Larry Klein said he saw his first drone show at the United States Conference of Mayors last year and found it to be an impressive display similar to fireworks, with more control. Sunnyvale hasn’t had Fourth of July celebration fireworks in decades. Klein would like to see the drone show become an annual city tradition.

The drones have an array of environmental benefits, Klein said, such as reducing loud noises and air pollutants.

“It meets Sunnyvale’s sustainability and environmental goals, and it provides a way for the community to get together and experience what a standard fireworks show would bring to the July 4 celebration,” Klein told San José Spotlight.

The city set aside $100,000 for the event, and the drones cost about $65,000, according to city spokesperson Jennifer Garnett.

This year’s drone show in Sunnyvale is the first of its kind. Klein said he suspects it may be the one of the first drone shows in the county, based on his conversations with other mayors. He expects to see more cities hosting drone shows next year.

Councilmember Linda Sell added that the drones reduce waste because they can be reused, whereas fireworks are single-use only. It also minimizes wildfire risks, which is important as summers trend hotter and wildfires become more frequent.

Sell, who co-founded the nonprofit Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action, said the drone show uses new technologies that could be improved on over time. She added that not every community can safely organize firework displays, so drone shows could be a more accessible alternative.

Alice Kaufman, policy and advocacy director for Green Foothills, said fireworks use heavy metals to create different colors, and burning them can release contaminants that irritate people’s lungs.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has issued warnings about fireworks in the past. At a news conference Monday, Santa Clara County Fire Chief Suwanna Kerdkaew said fire risk has dramatically increased in the past decade, and illegal Fourth of July fireworks put extra strain on safety infrastructure.

“We’re going into very hot dry conditions over the Fourth of July holiday,” Kerdkaew said.

Fireworks can also contaminate waterways through falling debris or by falling off boats, which are both concerns for San Francisco Baykeeper Attorney Nicole Sasaki. SF Baykeeper began organizing around firework shows after debris began washing up onto shores in the Bay Area following celebrations around Super Bowl 50. Sasaki helped local officials adopt a permitting system to control firework pollution.

She said the fireworks industry is trying to find ways to decrease toxicity levels, but those efforts have not moved forward, as new chemicals are simply less researched. Similarly, Sasaki cautioned that drones might still affect the environment.

“Tech can’t save us, but maybe it can help with fireworks pollution,” Sasaki told San José Spotlight. “With any alternative, drones sound like a great idea in this moment but I’m sure they have their own impact. It just hasn’t been assessed yet.”

Many local cities do have Fourth of July celebrations, which Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said are good opportunities to bring the community together. She said Sunnyvale’s drone show could be an opportunity for other local officials to consider in their own communities.

“I love that because it does improve the air quality, but it still gives an experience that’s a communal experience,” Chavez told San José Spotlight. “We know that all of the work that we’re doing to protect the planet from greenhouse gasses is almost erased by the fires, so we have to be much more thoughtful about how we’re treating the planet.”

Contact B. Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or @SakuCannestra on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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