Use of Drones and Other UAVs for Sports Coverage Offers Benefits, Challenges

by Louis Libin, president, Broad Comm

SVG’s FutureSPORT is less than a month away, featuring an agenda chock-full of the technologies and trends that will define the future of sports production. At the day-long event on June 11, Broad Comm President Louis Libin will discuss the current state of an industry hot topic: drone camera systems.

The NAB 2014 show floor was awash in drone technologies designed to redefine aerial coverage. Such technologies pose not only privacy issues but also technical issues (as well as safety risks and FAA issues). Libin will look into the different types of drone systems, how they might be used, why they might not ever be used, and some interesting (and safer) alternatives. Below, Libin previews his presentation.

CLICK HERE to register for FutureSPORT at the New York Hilton Hotel on June 11!

There is increasing interest in deploying drones basically for anything that benefits from having altitude. Their use is becoming so prevalent that such companies as Amazon and Google are planning and testing them as delivery vehicles. For sports coverage, drones’ ability to provide high-resolution, efficient aerial observation should not be underestimated.

As the technology becomes cheaper and easier to use, journalists are experimenting with using drones for newsgathering and sports coverage, including the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where they were deployed for ski and snowboarding events. So is this the time for those covering a major sports event to invest in a drone? A study of 15 drones and similar systems suggests some answers to that question and point the way to technologies that can offer similar benefits for crowded sports events without putting the public at risk and for much less cost.

Drones offer the opportunity to document sports scenes that cannot be captured on the ground and, for journalism, to cover situations where it would be too dangerous to send a person.

Drones allow the filmmaker to get much closer to the subject. They are also more flexible than the familiar cable-suspended camera systems.

Live transmission via drone is tricky. It requires an extra transmitter, which weighs on the vehicle, some of which are designed to move at more than 40 mph while delivering live, high-definition video.

Many questions and challenges arise in the use of drones. For one thing, what does this mean for privacy, ethics, and safety in our skies? The intent here is to raise these important questions, not to answer them; other experts will do that in time.

Safety, battery, and flight time are paramount concerns, which could inspire some to seek near-term solutions. Those solutions will need to address the significant limitations inherent in the use of UAVs:
Operational skill: A high level of operator proficiency and extensive training are required for drone operations near crowded events.
Safety: The operation of UAVs in highly populated areas pose a severe risk due to the possibility of communication failure or loss of eye contact with the platform.
Performance: Normally, the observation performance of a UAV mandates a very close approach. This can be highly problematic in sports events, where coverage needs to be “hands-off” and “out of the scene.”
Operation time: The drone or UAV is limited to tens of minutes and requires frequent landing for replacement of batteries.
Expense and complexity: Existing solutions based on free-flying blimps or tethered aerostats require expensive, large, and complex deployment.
Regulatory concerns: In many countries, drone regulations lag behind the technology, and it might not be clear to a broadcaster that drones can be used legally.

An Alternative to Drones
A low-cost mini tethered blimp solves many of these challenges. Straight from the battlefield, Bird’s Eye is an advanced, very lightweight unmanned aerostat-mounted observation system designed to provide especially wide coverage. Based on patented electro-optic technology, it provides quick, direct access to outdoor sports coverage with a very accurate camera system.

Given its very small size (volume < 3.25 cubic meters, lifting capacity ~ 2.5 kg), Bird’s Eye does not require flight permits, according to U.S. FAA regulations, allowing significant operational flexibility. Furthermore, the system’s compact size enables it to be transported in a small car, carried in only two suitcases. Bird’s Eye is designed for high-altitude flight of up to 800 m, with 360-degree coverage, giving it a significant advantage over existing aerostats.

Bird’s Eye’s payload incorporates ultra-high stabilization capabilities, which enable high-quality imaging in very narrow fields of view (high magnification). Image data acquired by the aerostat-mounted payload are transferred via patented optical fiber integrated into an ultra-lightweight tethering communication cable to a laptop-based operator unit. This eliminates the need for wireless links, allowing high-bandwidth, secure video links. Integrated data-recording capabilities can be used, or the system can serve as another live camera.

Bird’s Eye is extremely simple to deploy from a vehicle or by ground anchoring in the field, with less than 15 minutes required to achieve an operational image. After system setup, up to six hours of operation are provided by a single battery pack. This combination of very high image stabilization, operational safety, and ease of use, combined with the absence of licensing or permit requirements, make Bird’s Eye an attractive tool for aerial news and sports coverage. The system is widely used for this application, giving broadcasters a special vantage point and strategic coverage capabilities.

The Bird’s Eye blimp is actually a weather balloon, made from especially light latex and measuring 3.5 cubic meters. A net surrounding the balloon provides additional stability — distributing the payload, shaping the balloon, and causing it to be more aerodynamic. A sail below the balloon is part of the stabilizing system, improving the drag/lift ratio. Sitting atop the netting, an emergency parachute ensures that no one is injured and the camera system remains safe if the balloon deflates.

In operation, Bird’s Eye can withstand up to 30 knots (much more than other tactical balloons, which are limited to 15 knots). The system can be deployed in extreme weather and on high altitude because of even pressure distribution. While deployed, it can be moved to a different location, such as NASCAR coverage would require.

A non-RF solution is best because it provides the highest quality and the system may need very fast planning and deployment. A fiber-optic cable, however, needs to be protected. The Bird’s Eye fiber-optic solution is strong but light, thanks to a Kevlar textile envelope that protects the fiber.

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