Can drones replace fireworks?

On a cold October night in the quiet industrial town of Krailling, Germany, a single blinking drone flew into the air. The distant light was soon joined by 499 more, lighting up in the shape of the number 500.

They then flew to new positions, this time spelling out the word “Intel.”

The light show was a proof of concept for Intel Corp.’s INTC, -0.94%   leap into the drones-as-entertainment business. Intel on Friday announced a drone called the “Shooting Star,” a flying contraption about the weight of a volleyball that can light up in 4 billion color combinations for commercial entertainment light shows.

Intel is not alone in producing drones as a form of nighttime entertainment that could augment or replace fireworks. The Walt Disney Co. DISN, +2.28%   has filed numerous patents for drones that it dubbed “Flixels,” as first reported by MarketWatch in August 2014. The patents indicate that the drones would follow pre-programmed flight paths and emit LED lights at various intervals, lighting up the sky. Others might be able to fly through the air with puppets suspended from the base.


Images from a patent Disney filed involving drones in nighttime entertainment

Drones should prove to be safer than traditional fireworks, which accounted for an estimated 10,500 trips to U.S. emergency rooms in 2014 and at least 11 deaths, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The U.S. has seen rapid growth in the fireworks industry in the past decade and a half. In 2015, Americans purchased 285.3 million pounds of fireworks, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association, spending $1.09 billion.

Whether drone-focused light shows will prove to be more cost-efficient is a bigger question. The devices would only have to be purchased once, but would likely cost much more than a standard small-scale fireworks show.

Small-town holiday fireworks displays typically cost about $2,000 to $7,000 for a basic show, according to Premier Pyrotechnics, while the city of Houston spent an estimated $100,000 on its 2016 Fourth of July fireworks show, according to Houston Business Journal. On a grander scale, estimates suggest Macy’s Inc. M, -0.11%   may spend $6 million on its annual Fourth of July fireworks show.

Intel’s drones are not publicly for sale, and the chip maker would not disclose how much they would cost. For now, the drones are proof of the ability to automate multiple drone flights at once, using software that could be adapted to commercial applications like mapping or inspections.

Intel’s Shooting Star drone

“We want to showcase that drones can be used for something different,” said Natalie Cheung, Intel’s product manager for unmanned aerial vehicles.

The last time Intel used drones for entertainment was in 2015, when 100 drones were each manually pre-programmed to take their positions in the sky, which Cheung admitted was not practical. Now, users can enter images into a software program, and an algorithm determines the path the drones need to fly to create the image.

“I can’t imagine how you would manually place 500 drones in the air for a five-minute show,” Cheung said. “And while 100 is amazing, 500 is breathtaking.”

Intel already manufactures its own commercial-grade drone called the Falcon 8+, and earlier this week announced it had acquired flight-planning software startup MAVinci for an undisclosed price. It has also invested $60 million in consumer drone company Yuneec.