Live from the US Open: A Drone Takes Flight; Robotic Hard Cameras Offer New Angles – Sports Video Group

There is one round left to play at the U.S. Open and one thing to look for on the closing day are not only great shots from the drone patrolling the Pebble Beach Golf Links coastline but also shots from four robotic hard cameras that are able to capture the action from new angles.

“There are few courses as good as this one to use drone technology,” says Mike Davies, Fox Sports, SVP, technical and field operations. “There are so many active holes along the coastline and director Steve Beim has done a great job directing the drones and doing some cool things. Drone technology has come of age here at the U.S. Open.”

Brad Cheney, Fox Sports, VP, field operations and engineering ,says the original plan was for the drone to be tethered to a boat just off the coast as that would allow for longer flying times and obviate the need to change batteries. But the changing tides and problems with the kelp bed interfering with the line during low tide quickly made it clear earlier this week that the best bet was to fly untethered.

“It does mean we need to plan a lot more about where and when we want to fly because we only have 10 minutes to get out and back,” says Cheney. “But the shots it is getting are surpassing everyone’s expectations as it allows viewers to see the course from an angle they have never seen before.”

The drone is another example of the collaboration between the technical and production teams as Loomis and Beim studied some of the pre-taped beauty shots that were captured using a drone and then selected the shots they wanted to also offer live.

“What [Director] Steve Beim and [Executive Producer] Mark Loomis are pulling off is great as every day the drone shots get better and better,” says Cheney. “I can’t wait to see what it looks like on Sunday.”

It also has proved to be a necessity as the marine layer of cloud cover has impacted the ability of the blimp to fly over the course. The aerial shots from the drone, while much lower than the blimp, are filling in the aerial void.

“Without the drone on Thursday we would have had nothing,” says Cheney.

While the U.S. Open is the one weekend when Fox Sports truly leverages golf innovations Davies is quick to point out that when a technology can be applied successfully to golf it can often be applied to other sports the network covers.

“The U.S. Open does function as a bit of a laboratory for things that we can use elsewhere,” he says. “The flight track with slabs lends itself for a sport as far afield as bowling so we had a totally different concept for bowling coverage born out of what we did for golf. It gives a videogame feel and I think that on Fox and maybe everywhere else that is going to be more important as our audiences are now accustomed to looking at simultaneous things.”

The robotic camera off the 17th green (enlarged here) can capture players putting and then walking past it to the 18th tee.

Another innovation is the use of robotic hard cameras on the course and the team stole the idea from the MLB Fox productions that place a low home camera on a robotic head. It allows for hard cameras to become less obtrusive with the camera operator panning, tilting, and zooming from a location hundreds, if not thousands, of feet away.

“Here we are putting it on a tower and doing the same thing as we have a very small setup that fits in nicely,” says Cheney. “And it worked so well in testing on holes 7 and 17 that the USGA put it in on holes 9 and 18.”

Camera operators in the Technology Tent control the robotic hard cameras via pan bars.

For example, one of the cameras is located between the 17th green and the 18th tee box, giving it an angle not only on puts and tee shots but as players walk from the green to the tee.

Those four cameras from Fletcher are under the control of two operators who are located in the Technology Tent and use pan bars to control them.

“I don’t think there is anybody who is better at robos than Fletcher and Brian LaValle and the team at Fletcher has been supporting us with great expertise,” says Cheney. “The funny thing about the hard-robotic cameras is that at first the camera guys got a lot of flak from everyone else. But when it hits 100 degrees outside all of a sudden everyone else wants to give it a try because they’re in an air-conditioned tent and they also can’t get rained on.”

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