At least 500 drones will depart the shores of New Jersey on Thursday evening, flickering over the horizon in a choreographed dance meant to evoke the experience of swiping colorful treats on a phone screen.
Promising a “surreal takeover of New York City’s skyline,” the fleet will pulse with LED lights as it serves miles of Lower Manhattan with an aerial advertisement for the mobile video game, Candy Crush.
But the display has some New Yorkers wondering when the city’s skyline became another surface to be wallpapered in corporate branding.
The unusual project is the latest entrant in the field of drone light shows — a fast-growing technology that allows companies to “turn the sky into the largest screen on the planet,” according to Fernanda Romano, the chief marketing officer of Candy Crush.
Others see the drones as an unwanted form of visual pollution, an intrusion on the urban landscape that would seem to violate the city’s strict ban on drone use.
“I think it’s outrageous to be spoiling our city’s skyline for private profit,” said state Sen. Brad Hoylman, who represents the West Side of Manhattan, after he was shown an invitation to the event. “It’s offensive to New Yorkers, to our local laws, to public safety, and to wildlife.”
The practice of using GPS-linked drones for advertising first gained traction in China, before arriving in the U.S. in the last year. This week’s candy-themed spectacle is believed to be New York’s second such show, following an event promoting the NBA draft this past summer. Both were the work of Pixis, a Virginia-based drone events company.
“This is the next wave,” said Jeff Kaplan, the general manager of Pixis, adding that New York’s skyline was an “amazing canvas to work with.” The show, which will last for 10 minutes, will be visible within a one-mile radius of Battery Park. A forthcoming drone model will increase that distance to 3 miles, Kaplan said.
Under the city’s Avigation Law, flying one drone – let alone several hundred – is illegal anywhere in the five boroughs. That law, which is frequently ignored, is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit, as well as intense lobbying by companies like Uber and AT&T, which seek to incorporate drones into their business.
Though Pixis has boasted of executing the “first-ever drone light show in New York City,” the company’s general manager told Gothamist that is not actually the case. Like the NBA draft promotion, the Candy Crush event will launch from New Jersey’s Liberty State Park and will avoid crossing state lines, according to Kaplan.
While New Jersey state parks typically ban drone use, the event was given a special use permit, a spokesperson confirmed. Pixis was also able to obtain a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration allowing the shows to take place in federal air space.
An FAA spokesperson said the agency thoroughly reviews drone show applications to ensure safety for those in the air and on the ground.
To some, the brewing conflict mirrors the intrastate battle over low-flying tourist helicopters; after New York limited the number of flights within city limits, much of the industry moved to New Jersey, prompting calls for a federal ban that remains unheeded.
Others, meanwhile, see echoes of the billboard boat, a floating barge that beamed LED ads at New York’s waterfront, until it was eventually run out of town by a state law and a city lawsuit.
Hoylman, who sponsored a bill against the barge, said he would look into introducing legislation making clear that drone-based ads had no place in New York skies. Inquiries to the offices of Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams were not returned.
Others have voiced concerns about the aerial marketing, beyond the impact on captive city residents.
With migration in full swing, the artificial light will likely disrupt the flight patterns of thousands of birds passing overhead, potentially leading to collisions, according to Dustin Partridge, the director of conservation and science at NYC Audubon.
“The Hudson is an important flyway for birds, and luckily it’s been dark,” Partridge said. “To come in like this without thinking about the impacts on the environment and the birds that will be flying in the same air space as those drones is surprising.”
In response to skeptics, drone backers are quick to point out their wide-ranging benefits. They can be useful in surveying buildings, protecting firefighters, or patrolling swimming beaches for sharks.
Graham Hill, the owner of a Denver-based drone company, Hire UAV Pro, said he initially entered the business to provide an alternative to fireworks in the drought-stricken West Coast. But in the last year, he’s seen a shift in his client base.
“The type of customers coming to us the most are the ones trying to do advertising in the sky,” Hill told Gothamist. “The advantage of drone light shows is being able to turn empty space and empty sky into a large billboard, essentially.”