Fireworks under control
Fireworks at events like the British Fireworks Championships use sophisticated control systems such as, FireOne, Pyromate and Pyrodigital to create the magic.
As you stand in the drizzle at the annual sulphur purge that marks 5 November, you may be heartened to reflect on just how far fireworks have come since they were first used in 7th century China in the to scare away evil spirits.
China still leads the world as the biggest manufacturer and exporter, but fireworks are now used all over the world to celebrate major events, and attempts are regularly made to claim records for anything from the largest Catherine wheel to largest firework display, the longest firework waterfall or the most firework rockets launched in 30 seconds.
There is also a growing number of firework competitions appearing on the scene. Two such events in the UK are the British Fireworks Championships and the British Musical Fireworks Championships.
When Phoenix Fireworks won the British Fireworks Championships in August it held both titles for a short period of time. However, Phoenix Fireworks' unusual claim was short-lived as Flashpoint Fireworks captured the British Musical Fireworks title which was in held in Stockport on 11 October. The company won the competition, firing off a display to music from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Take That, Kings of Leon and Rossini's, with a grand finale of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'.
Not all the participants enjoyed such good fortune, however: the efforts of rival company Fantastic Fireworks fell somewhat short of a damp squib as the British Musical Fireworks' Sunday schedule was blown out by strong winds. Flashpoint Fireworks was therefore awarded the prize for being the best of the five shows that did take place.
You might think that if you put on a good display you are in with a chance of winning, but there is more involved as Alex Selby, Phoenix Fireworks' display manager explains, the British Fireworks Championships are judged on a number of things including the paperwork.
"You get points for having all the correct paperwork and providing it on time. You also get points for presentation on the day itself, which involves your company all wearing a team uniform and things like that. For the fireworks side of it, it goes on the material: how good it was; the rhythm of firing; the noise and if you used it appropriately or not; and then there is originality."
Fireworks control via laptop
Gone are the days when a man runs up and down lighting individual firework fuses; modern systems are all computer controlled. There are basically three systems available on the market but Phoenix Fireworks has opted for the FireOne, which is a US-developed system.
"The FireOne can be used with or without the laptop, which is good because the system will fire running on an internal programme, which means it is almost faultless," explains Selby.
"The system is a clever piece of kit - you use field boxes, which are called modules, equipped with their own battery which is a godsend because the electric fuses you're firing are no more than a couple of feet away from the battery."
He confides that, "in the old days you would have the battery in the firing panel and you would have loads of wires going out and obviously there would be lots of resistance. By the time the current went out it never got there, which is why you ended up having batteries everywhere."
FireOne control specifications
The FireOne hardware consists of a control panel firing modules and connection rails. The control panel connects to the firing modules using FireOne's two-core wire system or can be done wirelessly.
He explains: These field boxes or modules are given a number and the programme has all the information about that module stored on it, such as which fireworks are connected to it and the order and time they have to fire. All the information is either on your laptop or, if you download the programme, it is on the panel."
The main module panel connects to the firing modules via eight individual output channels. Both the wireless and two-core firing modules are microprocessor-controlled capacitive discharge modules, which allow them to be located a considerable distance from the control panel - up to 3km without signal degradation.
"The panel sends the signal through what is basically a two-core high-grade speaker wire to the module which is plugged into a rail that basically houses all the fuse connections," says Selby.
Some might think it is more difficult to fire the fireworks off in time to music, but Selby says it all depends on the designer how much the difficulty increases when the display has to be synchronised. "For me personally, it is easier because it is more my passion for fireworks - the Plymouth show was harder than a musical display would be."
One of the issues needing to be taken into account when displaying fireworks to music is the difference between the speed of sound and light. Anybody not watching the display from within the focus area might think the two were out of sync. "That is a problem at Southport where the musical challenge championships are held because the speakers are located where the fireworks are and not where the audience is. There is something like half a second difference between the light and the sound." That means putting a half-second delay on the fireworks, which is done using the laptop to synchronise things back up.
"It can be very tricky because it depends who you are aiming for. If people are further back they are not going to get the show. You have to decide where the main bulk of the audience is and perform to it; they'll get the show but others might not. This is why you always get conflicting reports in the press."
"The recession has hit the firework industry as it has most other industries but it certainly didn't affect what we did for the British Fireworks Championships," says Selby. "It didn't have any impact on the display."
The British Fireworks Championships are a very prestigious thing to win. "We were aware that it is a very difficult thing to get into as although we've been in it two years in a row, our last entry before that was ten years ago because of the way it is done. We are only one of three companies and certainly only one of two guys that I know that have every won both titles."