Aerial Camera Systems Drive Spectator Eyes Skyward at US Open

US Open spectators have been treated to a host of exciting early-round matches, but many of the eyeballs at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center have been caught drifting skyward — not out of boredom but to marvel at two complex aerial camera systems making their debut at the tournament.

Spidercam, a four-point system, is covering center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium exclusively for ESPN, and FlyCam, a point-to-point setup, runs nearly the entire length of the Tennis Center.

“There’s a lot of buzz about [the Spidercam and FlyCam],” says Steve Gorsuch, director of broadcast operations for USTA. “The USTA is very excited that the fans spend half the time watching them. At the opening ceremonies, the Spidercam swooped down and flew over the flag, across the length of the court, and right into the kid singing the national anthem. It was very impressive.”

Look Out! Here Comes Spidercam
Spidercam marks the first time a dedicated aerial camera system has flown over a Grand Slam event. Although French Opens have seen similar systems on the grounds of Roland Garros, this will be the first aerial setup devoted entirely to the court in a single stadium. However, the system is not permitted to move during play and focuses strictly on breaks in play, such as court changes, warm-ups, and walk-offs.

Spidercam on hand at Arthur Ashe Stadium

“For sure, the [US Open] is something we’ve been chasing for two years now,” says Damian O’Connell, head of operations and special projects at Spidercam. “To do a Grand Slam is something I’ve been wanting to do for two years. Tennis is something that really lends itself to [Spidercam]. The best thing about [the US Open] is, we have two weeks to develop what we’re going to do.”

The four-point system is anchored at four strategic locations on the stadium’s roof. At each, a motorized winch distributes Kevlar cable through a pulley fastened to one of the stadium’s many light poles. The ultra-thin Kevlar cable is capable of lifting 1.2 tons and is woven with fiber cable to facilitate communication between the physical system and Spidercam’s X-Y-Z coordinates software. The Spidercam has just five hours of battery life, meaning that the crew must ground the camera at least once during ESPN’s coverage window (1 p.m. until the end of play on weekdays) to switch out the power source.

Spidercam operator Thomas Meckel switching out batteries

“From our perspective, tennis has always been such a fixed-camera-position sport,” says Jamie Reynolds, VP of event productions for ESPN. “What if you had the opportunity to give it a little movement?

“It is a more cinematic approach to sports coverage,” he adds. “Tennis is a game where you can actually stay on a shot and watch it develop. Because of the computerized flight pattern and the surgical precision that [the crew] can drive, we can actually orchestrate a very specific route to accentuate each shot.”

Spidercam required less than a day to set up and is operated by a three-person crew out of a dedicated control room on the roof of Arthur Ashe. A pilot inputs the coordinates, an operator handles the pan and tilt functions, and a third member oversees the operation. The goal is to create compelling shots while maintaining players’ comfort level.

Pilot Felix Werremeier Flying the Spidercam

“It is a bit different, and it’s slightly invasive, but it does bring in a whole new perspective,” says O’Connell. “Most of the players have seen it before so it doesn’t disturb them. The challenge is getting to the point where they’re comfortable enough to ignore it.”

Because the Spidercam is available only to ESPN, operators must always be mindful not to corrupt the USOptimum world-feed shots. As Reynolds says, this can make for “a very delicate dance” between Spidercam and the world feed.

“Because of the world feed, we have to be very cautious,” says O’Connell. “We’ve got the world feed up [on a monitor], and we’re looking at it so we can see where we can and can’t go — trying to guess where they’re going to go next on their cut. It’s a bit of an adventure.”

Inside the Tennis Center With FlyCam
FlyCam stretches from the top of Louis Armstrong Stadium (on the far north end of the Tennis Center) across the South Plaza and all the way to Court 10 (at the far south end) — more than 1,000 ft. of coverage.

The system took 2½ days to set up, typical for a FlyCam system this size, according to the on-site crew. Similar to the Spidercam, a three-person crew — pilot, operator, overseer — operates the system, which features a Panasonic AK-HC1500 HD camera.

It is been used primarily for bumpers and transitions during the telecast, giving viewers an overhead view of the non-tennis action (crowds, fountains, shops, etc.) throughout the Tennis Center.

“It feels really good so far,” says Reynolds. “It gives atmosphere and scope and shows the great deal of activity that’s going on. The heat has been an issue this year, so you may not see as many people walking around during the day. So when we do have people here during the day, we may have to bank some shots.”

Unlike Spidercam, the FlyCam feed is being used for the USOptimum world feed and by other international broadcasters. Although ESPN has final control over the system during its coverage windows, other broadcasters can tap into the feed for shots of the Billie Jean complex.

“ESPN brought this to the table much like they did Spidercam, and part of my negotiation with ESPN to bring this camera on-site was that ESPN will allow international clients here to use it,” says Gorsuch. “At night, it really looks great. It’s like Times Square over here. People will look up at it and wave.”

ESPN’s Three-Tiered Approach
This year, ESPN has put a great deal of emphasis on creating a “sense of grandness” and giving viewers at home more of a feel for the US Open atmosphere. The two aerial systems, along with a blimp overhead, give ESPN a three-tiered set of tools to do just that.

“We see it as three aerial components working together,” says Reynolds. “The blimp provides the overall footprint, the FlyCam gives you an intimate look at the entire complex — people congregating, the draw board, and the shops — and the Spidercam gives you an even more intimate feel inside the stadium. We believe that three-tiered approach gives this thing a true sense of place and grand feel.”