Jul 032006

I found the following story on CNet about how modern day fireworks displays are computer controlled. You might be surprised to learn that many are still fired off manually.

By Natali T. Del Conte?
Comedian Jeff Foxworthy once reportedly said that you might be a redneck if your lifetime goal was to own a fireworks stand.

But these days, operating a modern-era fireworks production is much more like Hollywood in the sky. Orchestrating the shows that will take place over the next few days requires artistry, a fanatical interest in safety, and a healthy dose of geek, to boot.

Eric Tucker, the lead creator for the Fourth of July fireworks show in Boston that is broadcast on ABC, is planning a show that will be exactly 22 minutes and 32 seconds long. For every minute of pyrotechnical splendor, however, at least four hours of planning has been done ? and that doesn’t include the time it took him to test fireworks in Europe and Asia, as well as actually set up the firing equipment. He started planning nearly four months ago.

“It costs more than you think and less than it’s worth,” Tucker said. “I don’t talk about how much but it’s a very large production. It’s one of the largest in the country. There’s a lot of pressure every year to do it.”

Most of the major fireworks shows, including Tucker’s, will be choreographed with a program called Show Director by Infinity Visions. The PC-based software has been available since 1996 and will be used in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and all of the major theme parks including Universal Studios, Disneyland and Disney World, Six Flags and Paramount Parks.

The software allows firing cues to be placed at certain times, superimposed against the waveform of the music that will be played; fireworks can be used to emphasize themes, provide percussion, or simply create effects that complement the music. Once the show is choreographed, the instructional files are uploaded into the firing machines, and the programmers can step back and simply push “play”. The computer sends the appropriate signals down a web of cables to the firing modules, which in turn are connected to the shells. Like all major productions, preparation is key.

“Once you lock up the code and the controllers start spinning, they’re just going to run their program, so you just watch to see if anything goes wrong and you can adjust something — or at least you can duck,” Tucker said.

The show uses back-up redundancy systems and sub-networks that don’t rely on a single network as a point of failure.

Tucker uses firing equipment designed by Pyrodigital Consultants, Inc., the company that designed the first digital firing machine in 1982. The original machine ran on DOS programs before Show Director came along. Prior to the invention of digital machines, firing equipment was manual, requiring someone to stand there with headphones on, firing according to the cues on a tape.

Timing is everything

“Some of the smaller shows are still done that way because it’s less expensive than having the computer system,” said Ken Nixon, owner of Pyrodigital. “But one of the big advantages of doing it computerized is that there is a safety factor because you’re not standing right next to an explosion.”

Tucker said that firing machines are heavy-duty equipment. “These systems run in a very hostile environment,” he said. “It’s hot, it’s raining, it’s dirty and stuff is blowing up around you. With shows of this size, the equipment is military spec. You can get it wet, you can blow it up, and it just chugs through.”
The firing machinery for a show can cost between $30,000 and $50,000 while the software costs between $2,000 and $8,000. The fireworks themselves are hundreds and sometimes even thousands of dollars each. For this reason, Kevin Crews, a producer with Fireworks America, only uses the fancy equipment for the larger shows.

“Only a portion of our shows are computerized because the firing system is extremely expensive and some shows don’t warrant it,” Crews said. “We have several systems, but there aren’t enough to take care of the Fourth of July, so some shows are done electrically and some are done manually.”

Charlie Rappa, a show producer with Bay Fireworks, uses software and hardware from FireOne, which allows him to create “scenes” in the sky. FireOne sells both wired and wireless hardware, either self-contained or driven by a computer, that fires the shells according to the company’s carefully synchronized timing protocol, FSK. While customers can buy wired firing modules and control hardware, a WirelessOne wireless firing control center also allows wireless control of the firing modules from up to 3,250 feet away — using the spread-spectrum interference-free technology used in some cordless phones to prevent the shells from accidentally firing.

According to Rappa, the technology allows him to create “chase scenes” where a series of explosions ripples across the sky. Each shell’s explosion can be synchronized down to one one-hundredth of a second. While the speed of the cascade prevents each explosion from being perceived by the human eye, the combination creates a flowing effect across the sky that means sure-fire oohs and aahs.

“Firework audiences are so discerning in what they expect to see,” Rappa said. “It truly is amazing when you think about taking a .wav file that you used to try to tap out with a pencil and then dropping in a firing cue. It’s just unbelievable and it gives such dimension to the entire program.”

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