“Drone…Brilliant…That’s the shot of the day” the words anyone working on an OB wants to hear from the director in the gallery. Proof that the months of hard work and development were worth it.

The shot in question was at the start of the Men’s 20km Race Walk event at the World Athletics Championships in Doha. We were in front of the Start Line as the athletes lined up, when the starting pistol fired, we tracked back with the runners all the way to the first turning point where we were mixed in with the pictures from the lead bike.

As the director said, the shot went well. The Aerial team on the Corniche and Engineering Teams in the compound, all working together to make it work. Doha brought lots of challenges for the Technical Departments and the director’s confidence in the drone shots was the result of a lot of effort from the whole crew.

In Doha we had two drone teams covering opposite ends of the Corniche. Due to the heat, the Long-Distance events were run at night, with the entire 3.5Km length of the Corniche lit for Cameras. IAAF Productions, now World Athletic Productions, were keen to get the best aerials they could from the drones, so we chose the Sony HDC-P50.

Flying the Freefly Systems Alta 8, an octocopter with 8 motors, we were able to fly for a maximum of 8 minutes, but by having two drones at opposite ends of the field of play we were able to offer near continuous aerial coverage.

The P50 being the 4K HDR derivative of the popular P1 is an interesting camera to fly and the two drones in Doha were the first and so far, the only drones to have flown this camera.

Many drone shots you see on Live TV are generally either DSLR cameras such as the Panasonic GH5s as used in Freefly’s Movi Carbon, or from smaller integrated systems like the DJi Inspire2. While they have good results, they aren’t UHD HDR or engineered by a qualified Vision engineer in the OB. The Movi Carbon has a good Zoom lens at 6:1 while the Inspire2 is limited to a choice of Prime Lenses with stepped Iris control. The Inspire’s downlink is limited to 10Mb which is far below the broadcast standard of 18Mb for an RF link.

We have been flying and developing the Sony P1 setup since 2017, initially at The Henley Royal Regatta, and recently at the Badminton Horse Trials. In previous years we were only able to fly a small 3:1 zoom which was good but wasn’t going to be good enough to fly on the P50 for the IAAF.

With some careful modifications to the setup we were able to fly a 20:1 ENG Zoom Lens along with the Vislink H-CAM 4K Link and Videosys UHF receiver for Bi-Directional Racking. All this under the recommended Maximum Take Off Weight for the Alta 8 which was reduced due to the air temperature and expected reduced performance.

Many drone shots you see on Live Sports especially stadium sports such as Rugby and Football, are used as opening shots and establishers, or graphic underlays, but rarely event coverage. I have always been keen to use the drone for actual race coverage. Which is why we have continued to develop and innovate with the aerial camera package.

The Long-Distance events at Doha were perfect in this regard as unusually for Marathon and Race Walk Events they were run over a lapped course. This meant that the drones could provide shots at multiple times throughout the race, from wide GV’s and course shots to close overhead race coverage. Doha was also the first World Championship Marathon to not have Helicopters.

“We’re used to the overhead shot in the Olympics, but I think this is a better shot than that,” was said during Martin Cross’ commentary at our first Henley Royal Regatta in 2015.

I first started providing the drone camera for the race coverage at Henley after a conversation on the riverbank with Neil Chugani and Sir Matthew Pinsent. Together we came up with the idea of flying from platforms in the middle of the river which provided a safe environment away from the public and crucially enabled us to have perfect line of sight up and down the course. We started Henley with as everyone does a DSLR and in 2017 with the development of the Movi Pro we were able to provide for the first time a Sony P1 with 3:1 zoom. This year at Henley we flew the Alta 8 for the first time, and most importantly were able to get the 20:1 lens, that we tested at Badminton Horse Trials back in May, up in the air all week.

This year at Henley the addition of this wide zoom lens meant we were able to get good tight shots of the rowing technique while being able to pull out wide enough to include both boats and show the developing race. Matching this lens with the P1 meant that every camera on the race looks the same. Its often very easy to tell a drone shot on an OB because aside from the angle the quality doesn’t stand up against the full OB cameras, something. I think this is very important, because as a camera package the drone is an expensive element of an OB.

As a Drone Operator I often get asked to fly solo, usually due to cost but it’s something I try and avoid. For me a two-person crew brings much added value. The extra pair of eyes and ears helps with the situational awareness and lower the risk of the operation. A two-person crew means more dynamic shots with the drone performing an “Aerial Dance” in the sky, drone and camera moving in opposite directions getting far more interesting and dynamic shots for the production.

Henley in particular brings its own special requirements. We operate as a three-person crew from platforms in the middle of the river alongside the booms of the course. The incessant hum of the generators is a constant audio bed to our day complete with the battering of the wake from the Umpires Launch every 5 minutes. Pilot and Camera Operator workload is high with over 260 flights over the course of the event, having a third person is a very necessary addition to the team. This third person provides a safety role of spotting race crews transiting the area between the Course and the Berkshire Bank, pleasure boats and even the occasional swimmer and their proximity to the landing platforms. They are also responsible for battery management. When an average day of flying at Henley consists of around 70 flights of up to ten minutes each, Battery Management plays a hugely important role in the safe operation of the aerial unit.

Safety is at the forefront of our minds when operating a drone in the highly pressurised live environment. A large amount of planning is involved to make sure it all comes together without compromise. There are nearly always large crowds at sports events and care needs to be taken to ensure that separation of the aircraft from both Athletes and crowd is maintained, all while ensuring that the director gets the shot that they need. The Alta 8 has proven itself to be a reliable airframe and is capable of flying at maximum weight after losing one motor. The aircraft are serviced at the manufacturer in the US at regular intervals and the batteries are replaced after a set number of cycles. All the directors I have worked with have understood that when we say we are landing that it’s time to go to another camera, there has never been a call of just “ten more seconds”, communication and understanding our needs and limitations is paramount to a safe operation.

For every event that we fly at there is at least a half day of planning and preparation. This includes safety documentation and equipment preparation such as charging batteries and checks of the flying camera system which we do in a controlled environment. It’s all part and parcel of providing a safe, reliable professional drone operation.

In 2020 we will be back on the River at Henley in July, with many other projects lining up its looking like an interesting year. Meanwhile projects filmed this autumn including “Phil Spencer’s Stately Homes”, “Top Gear” and “A League Of Their Own” will be featuring our work in early 2020.

Have a Great Christmas and here’s to some interesting projects in 2020, always remember to use a certified professional operator when you use a drone in your production.

Steve is a London and Home Counties based Drone Pilot and Operator who works both at home and internationally on Commercials, Features, Promos and Live Sports. Flying the Freefly Systems Alta 8 and DJi Inspire 2 platforms, The Alta 8 is a very capable aircraft and mainly used to carry Alexa Mini and RED cameras.

Bringing a 20-year background in Broadcast television he is very at ease in challenging environments. Becoming involved in commercial drone flying at an early point in 2013 has given Steve vast experience of flying all over the world from the Arctic and Antarctic regions to the Caribbean and South East Asia, as well as the middle east and Africa.

As a freelance Drone Pilot flying for other operators his Credits include Features such as “Fast and Furious” and “Infinite” as well as many UK Drama and Commercial credits.

Steve holds a valid Permission For Commercial Operation from the CAA with reduced distances from the public with an Operating Safety Case for both the Alta and Inspire aircraft.
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