Drones have transformed the way we view fireworks. Outfitted with high-definition video cameras, the remote-controlled aircraft can capture spectacular footage of Independence Day shows from the air, as demonstrated by dozens of YouTube videos.

According to the market research firm Gartner, manufacturers will produce nearly 3 million drones in 2017, with sales expected to exceed $6 billion. That suggests that many amateur pilots will attempt to fly their high-tech aircraft near local fireworks displays this holiday weekend.

That raises some questions: Is it legal to fly a drone in the midst of a public fireworks display? Can you get permission to try it? And if you do get the go-ahead, how do you record the scene without losing your drone in a fiery crash? 

Drone Laws

There are no simple answers. According to an FAA spokesman, federal regulations don’t specifically ban UAV pilots from flying in and around fireworks. But in an announcement on Friday, the agency recommended that operators don’t fly drones in or near fireworks.

FAA rules prohibit amateur drone pilots from flying over crowds of people, in the dark, and at heights exceeding 400 feet. The aircraft must remain in the operator’s line of sight at all times. Those restrictions alone would leave would-be aerial videographers grounded at most fireworks shows.

Zachary Heck, an Ohio-based attorney who has written about drone laws and often helps drone enthusiasts navigate the legal system in his practice, explains that regulators often work with broad strokes, “because they want to encompass as many dangerous activities as possible.”

The FAA restrictions are just a baseline, according to Heck. States and local municipalities have the option to add their own regulations. Flying a drone over fireworks is prohibited in Tennessee, for example. The craft have been banned at the annual Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular since 2015. And local governments have been cracking down on drones at fireworks shows since the first round of viral videos in 2014, the attorney says.

While hobbyists face many restrictions, those who fly for business have more options. Licensed commercial drone operators can apply for FAA waivers for night flight—as long as they can prove they have adequate safety provisions in place. 

The Safety Question

“We would never want anyone flying into an actual fireworks display,” says Michael Oldenburg, a spokesman for DJI, one of the world’s largest drone manufacturers.

“People are drawn to fireworks and, if they have a drone, they’re going to fly up close,” adds Chris Aldrich, a photographer and commercial drone pilot, who has shot numerous fireworks shows for Toledo Aerial Media in Ohio. “You have explosives going off in the airspace. Most of your standard drones are quadcopters, so all it takes is one piece of shrapnel hitting that rotor, knocking it out of balance, and that thing’s going to drop out of the air.”

According to Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, the nation’s oldest fireworks trade group has yet to field any complaints about drones from its members. But Aldrich says he has seen more and more amateur pilots trying to shoot fireworks. “A lot of operators are wholly uneducated in the proper and safe way to operate drones,” he says. “It’s not uncommon for us to see drones operating over the giant crowds observing the fireworks.”

Mike Tockstein, owner of California’s Pyrotechnic Innovations, believes it’s possible for experienced pilots to safely record fireworks using a drone. He’s been in the fireworks business for 15 years and says he has worked with professional drone pilots a number of times.

Anyone looking to shoot one of his displays must first agree not to fly over the fireworks guns and to stay out of the safety exclusion zone that protects the public from firework fallout. “I draw a hard line,” he says. Pilots also need to get clearance from the fire inspector with jurisdiction over the site and the person in charge of the venue.

Heck recommends reaching out to local police and fire departments for information about drone use, particularly guidance related to fireworks shows. “Oftentimes, they’ll erect a safe zone around the fireworks site,” he explains, “and the fire department will be able to tell you how many feet away from the display your drone can operate.”

“As long as everybody’s on the same page about where the drone can and cannot fly, then I personally would be okay with it,” Tockstein says. Under the right circumstances, “there’s not much of a safety issue, in my opinion.” 

How the Pros Do It

The professional pilots at Toledo Aerial Media, who have been shooting that Ohio city’s fireworks program for several years, understand that taking high-quality images from a drone begins with solid photography skills on solid ground.

“People think that the photos and video you capture from a drone are somehow different, but it’s still photography and videography,” Aldrich says. “It’s unrealistic to think you’ll be successful in the air if you can’t shoot on the ground.”

For Toledo Aerial Media, a fireworks shoot begins with careful planning. The company begins by scouting locations before the Fourth, searching for interesting new angles on Toledo’s fireworks display, which changes its location somewhat from year to year. The company gets its FAA waivers for night flight and informs city officials about where it’s planning to shoot far in advance.

Unlike amateurs who are often eager to get as close to the mortars as possible, the TAM team takes the opposite approach. Aldrich’s partner Phil Myers explains that in many of their most compelling images, the fireworks are just one element of a composition that includes downtown skyscrapers and the city’s Maumee River.

They captured an epic cityscape from the other side of the Martin Luther King Bridge, above a section of the water where there are no spectator boats below. “We’re often thousands of feet from the action,” Myers explains.

Once Aldrich and Myers select a spot, they don’t so much fly the drone as position it. Whether for still or video, they tend to keep the drone in one place, kind of like a tripod that’s 300 feet in the air, moving the camera up and down slightly to change the angle but staying well within the FAA’s 400-foot altitude restriction.

The cameras on consumer-grade drones offer surprisingly good image quality during daylight. But Myers says that the weakness of entry-level models is their performance in low-light situations. This weekend they’ll be shooting the Sony A7S2 a or the Panasonic Lumix GH5, although for their commercial work, they sometimes fly a $90,000 RED video camera.

Higher-quality drones—like the DJI Inspire 2 or Matrice 600 Pro that TAM plans to use this weekend—are also more stable than most drones meant for amateurs, which is the other major key to great fireworks shots. These models feature tripodlike steadiness that allows for razor-sharp still images even while using the super-slow shutter speeds of 1 to 3 seconds that fireworks require. But if it’s a blustery July 4th, with winds swirling at 20 mph, Myers admits that even the best drones can’t stay steady.

So despite all that preparation, Myers and Aldrich admit that at nightfall on the Fourth of July, there’s still a strong element of chance as they try to time hitting the shutter buttons on the remotes, hoping to sync with a slow-developing chrysanthemum shell as it blooms across the sky.

“It comes down to a little bit of luck,” Myers says. “You might take a couple hundred images and get 10 that are worthwhile.”

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