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Use of Drones in Sports Broadcasts

By: Andy Cooper

The current aim of the sporting industry, outside of running the product on the field itself, is to take the fan closer to the action than ever before. In some cases, this may be improving fan experience or live-streaming, while in others it may be focusing on information, such as with predictive analytics, push messaging, or the second screen. However, broadcasters have new technology does this for them, as the use of drones is increasing in sports broadcasting – taking cameras directly into the thick of the action.

The use of drones provide broadcasters with an innovative way of capturing events; the small and light-weight nature of the technology allows the media to get footage of the action like never before. ESPN trialled drones at the X Games in early 2015, as Fox used them indoors at the AMA Supercross Series in March and again during golf’s U.S. Open. Brad Cheney, director of technical operations for Fox Sports, highlighted the potential of drones that was shown by broadcasting these events: “If we can track a motorbike doing 30-40 mph, we can track anything in sport. We can certainly track a wide receiver only doing 19 mph.”

Drones have the capability to deliver high-quality shots that are suitable for live television, using lightweight broadcast-quality high definition cameras and real-time HD video downlinks, like many other camera systems. Yet its greatest advantage is in its flexibility, allowing the operator the option to change the location of the shot – providing different angles and closer tracking of the action than individual fixed cameras. It allows for the type of coverage that only drones can provide, moving the shot based on the action rather than the producer to switch cameras displaying the shot, potentially following plays as they happen and using the flexibility of the technology to track the unpredictability that is the nature of sport.

Of course, this comes with a cost. FOX Sports’ coverage of the U.S. Open was boosted by drone footage from a company called HeliVideo, who provided a four-man team and more than $1 million in equipment to capture drone footage. The use of drones also requires FAA approval, which is currently being done on a case-by-case basis following Congress passing Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

There’s a safety aspect too, as drones would naturally take over from the wire-supported camera, one of which broke during in 2013 during a Spring Cup Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway, injuring ten fans in the stands and damaging several cars that were traveling at 195 mph, including race leader Kyle Busch. Broadcasting sporting events should never influence proceedings nor cause potential harm to spectators, so using safer technology that would achieve the same, or even better, the desired shot seems like an obvious choice to broadcasters.

Sports broadcasting is a competitive marketplace, with companies aiming to be the best in the business. This competition combined with the additional demand from consumers is likely to push drone usage to the forefront of broadcast technology – providing the viewer with the type of footage that is impossible to achieve from fixed camera systems.