Drones: The Future of Race Coverage

For a look at how photo journalists used to cover racing, see this photo from the the website http://www.f1history/deviantart.com. Image

The modern eye, naturally notices on the left side of the photo: a man, standing inches away from the speeding Formula 1 Ferrari of British legend Mike Hawthorn. Do you see him? He’s the slightly blurry figure wearing a light blue sweater and brown trousers. Now, I’m sure you can see him.

That looks dangerous.

We would never suggest or even allow, photographers to get so close to the action today. But technology has developed innovations to allow similar if not better, photos and video to be taken during races. I’m thinking of in ground embedded cameras, the swinging gantries that allow a camera to sweep through a corner following the action or even the camera on a wire as employed by NASCAR and American football.

A new technology promises to blow current systems out of the water. In one word: drones. Pilotless remote control multicopters (usually named for the number of rotors on board) with gimballed cameras are being used increasingly in documentaries and news programs. They provide dramatic otherwise unobtainable footage. They can hover near ground level, then almost instantaneously zoom hundreds of feet in the air.

Watch this amazingly disorienting yet wonderfully flowing video taken by The Flying Camera Company (link to their website) to promote their endeavors. Fortunately, on first glance, it looks like they might have some interest in motor related subjects.

The Flying Camera Company is a new video production group focusing on this paradigm shift in airborne camera work. I was able to ask them some questions about the technology and what applications they see in the future for motorsport. While the technology itself is exciting. And the video results are impressive. Regulatory concerns mean that there are ways the flying cameras can and cannot be deployed.

First, the best thing about this new technology is just the type of shot it can get. It is unlike any other technology and comes at a fraction of the cost of traditional helicopter mounted cameras. When you’ve got something like that, you’ve got to believe F1 is going to want it. The Flying camera Company explains:

“The great thing about multi rotors is that you can do moves that no other piece of equipment can so you usually want to show that off with some movement, perhaps starting beside the track at ground level then developing to a higher wide shot drifting over the track as the cars came underneath. Also with aerial filming your usually on a fairly wide lens as your trying to achieve those big, epic shots but most things are achievable with them with the right equipment and planning.”

The Flying Camera Company is currently using octocopters, or UAV’s — Unmanned Aerial Vehicles — with eight rotors. I believe they prefer the term UAV to “drones”.  Drones come with immediate negative connotations, but UAV’s should begin to change that. These aren’t by any means the type of missile shaped armament carrying drones of the U.S. military. The octocopters use high tech navigation and hefty construction to withstand the rigors of their work environment. Since the UAV’s use GPS for navigation, they can basically be parked at a set location and film from there. So, a first possibility would be to have them used in areas where crowds are prohibited and it would be too difficult to get a film crew or helicopter into location. One hovering UAV could be “parked” for example, above the unused section of Interlagos and film cars as the come out of turns one and two, up through the back straight and into corners four and five.

Interlagos UAV Fly Zone

A possible UAV fly zone (click on image to enlarge) marked in white with red borders at Interlagos.

For that matter, they could be used extensively in rallying, greatly reducing the cost of helicopter flights while providing wider and more diverse coverage. Instead of sweeping over the snow covered forests of Sweden, imagine sweeping through them!

As helicopter type vehicles they are not fast in a straight line. The Flying Camera Company estimates maximum straight line speeds of around 30 mph. But, covering a curving section of a road course or rally stage they could sweep over areas in a straight line providing unique coverage as the cars navigate the twisty bits on the ground. Again, the limiting factor here is safety, as no one right now wants to risk a malfunction causing spectator injury or a possible collision with a race car.  The possibility of physical tethering could provide additional safety.

The heft of the camera and motors means that the octocopter used by the Flying Camera Company weighs in at about 30lbs. I asked if there is any problem with aero wash from vehicles being filmed and they haven’t experienced any problems filming in close proximity to speeding Ferraris and Paganis on a closed course. Initially, as the technology proves itself, the UAV’s will undoubtedly be used more for promotional work on closed courses where safety concerns are minimal. Eliminate the crowd and most of the cars and the safety aspects become much easier to control. I would predict some spectacular shots in the upcoming F1 season of team cars being shot during private video sessions.

The big thing to expect from UAV cameras in the future is probably not shots from right next to the track like the brave old F1 photographers, but rather a totally new way to see the race tracks and races. Maybe sooner than later, we will get track previews provided by UAV’s sweeping around the track and zooming in from high to low, and from a broad field to a narrow field to highlight certain corners and features. My guess is, my imagination can’t fathom the amazing shots these little robotic flyers will soon be providing.

The pilots who control these vehicles need to be licensed and they must have permission to carry out aerial work from local flight control authorities like the CAA. The onboard GPS navigation systems help a lot when learning to fly and stabilizing the camera, but like any aircraft, the best pilots know how to take manual control of any situation. And, like any aircraft control comes with hours of flying. The only other restriction is flight time, which is currently limited to just under a quarter hour. That’s a lot less than a helicopter, but multiple teams could be used to cover the same event providing overlapping coverage.

Motorsport fans are drawn to F1 because it has traditionally been on the cutting edge of technology. With a new era in coverage opening up, it will be interesting to see who takes the lead in promoting and developing this exciting new technology.


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