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Technology: Game of Drones

Drones are becoming increasingly popular within the sports sector. Tom Walker looks at how these unmanned flying machines are being deployed

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management Oct 2016 issue 127
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Brandon Lee (right) of US-based Arch Aerial with football manager Chris Coleman (left) / sergei grits / press association
Brandon Lee (right) of US-based Arch Aerial with football manager Chris Coleman (left)/ sergei grits / press association

“Drones are one of the most popular and fastest progressing technologies,” says Brandon Lee, director of sales and marketing at US-based Arch Aerial. “Today you can buy an affordable drone which captures 4K video, takes 16 megapixel photos and has object avoidance sensors.”

Arch Aerial is a leading drone supplier and as well as providing the hardware for a number of sports-related projects, provides mapping and other services across the agricultural, insurance and energy sectors.

According to Lee, the sector is still relatively young and sport – among other industry sectors – is only just waking up to the exciting possibilities offered by drones. He adds that as the safety of the devices improves, so will their popularity.

“Drones are becoming safer and more reliable, so soon just about anyone can operate them,” he says. “While they’re being used in adrenaline and action sports currently, my opinion is that there is a lot of room for improved coverage in all sports.”

FUTURE FLIGHTS
As drone technology continues to develop, there are many more operations that these unmanned machines will be able to perform within the sports industry – and some are already being trialled. Drones are already being used as aids for stadium security and for spectator controls, for example.

At the European Football Championships earlier this year, the French police used drones to monitor fans outside stadiums and were able to observe and attend to “hot spots” wh ere rival fans were congregating. Camera-carrying drones were also used as additional CCTVs at this year’s Rio Olympics, with many seen hovering above stadiums during events.

Drones are also becoming a sport in themselves. Technology which allows ever faster and agile drones has resulted in the emergence of drone racing as a professional sport. There are now a number of drone racing events that attract crowds of thousands and which have significant cash prizes for winners – most notably the US$1m (£760,000) Dubai World Drone Prix which took place in March 2016.

Broadcasters are also taking note and earlier this year UK-based Sky Sports decided to spend US$1m to secure the TV rights to the US-based Drone Racing League (DRL). This competition will be shown on the broadcaster’s new Sky Sports Mix channel across 10 one-hour episodes starting from October 2016.

More significantly, Sky Sports has recently completed a distribution deal with the DRL to bring live drone racing events to the UK, with this rumoured to be taking place at a yet-to-be-named iconic London venue.

For Lee, as the technology improves, the possibilities for drones are only just beginning to be more fully understood. “I see the biggest future for drones in the development of fixed-wing operations, which will allow drones to cover large area events like golf, doing the jobs for which manned blimps are currently used,” he says.

“The technology already exists but is mostly used in the military sector. The fixed-wing drones of the future will have a lot longer flight times, so I also see them ultimately being used to cover sports that take course over longer distances – such as cycling and motor sports. Drones will be the future in that space.”

Here we look at other sports applications for drones:

Application 1: construction
Drones are currently being used at sporting venues long before the fans or athletes even arrive – as part of the initial design and construction process.

At the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California – the future home of NBA team Sacramento Kings – drones are being used to identify potential construction problems during the build process.

The system, called “Flying Superintendent”, uses images and videos taken with a camera drone and combines them with four-dimensional building information modelling (4D BIM) to identify and visually communicate the presence of issues to the construction teams on the ground.

The AECOM-designed Golden 1 Center, which is due to open later this month (October 2016), has already been hailed as the world’s most technologically advanced indoor arena. It will house the first ever 4K video board and an ultra-interactive app for fans to use during events, as well as a massive amount of connectivity within the building.

According to Sacramento Kings’ president Chris Granger, using innovative techniques in the construction phase sits perfectly with the club’s ethos of creating a “venue for the future”.

“Golden 1 Center will utilise next-generation technology to connect fans and enhance the way they experience basketball games,” said Granger. “It’s a natural fit for our partners to come together and use technology in revolutionary ways.

“This drone has helped us meet our goals, manage production schedules and costs and provided a resource that connected our partners like never before.”

The Flying Superintendent was designed by engineers at the University of Illinois in partnership with the arena’s building contractor, Turner Construction. According to Lincoln Wood, regional manager for virtual design at Turner Construction, the aerial images provided a comprehensive picture of progress and highlighted how a slowdown in one area may affect the entire project.

“The powerful thing about this technology is that it allows us to visualise and mitigate potential risks to our schedule before they happen,” he said.

Application 2: Broadcast
Sports broadcasting is another area where drones are revolutionising operations. Sweeping aerial shots of golf courses, ski runs and sections of roads at cycling races are now a powerful method of conveying the environment and the challenges faced by athletes to the viewer. Drones are perfect for recording these ‘beauty shots’ as they are more mobile and effective than cumbersome blimps – and much cheaper than using helicopters and a camera crew.

The buzz of camera drones is becoming a familiar sound at major events and they were used extensively at the Sochi Olympic Games to provide live video of snowboarding, freestyle skiing and ski jump competitions. Drones were also used to film parts of the opening ceremony at this year’s Rio Olympic Games, including the section celebrating the work of Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont.

US-based broadcaster Fox Sports was an early adopter of drone technology and has used them to produce aerial footage at the US Open tennis championship and also the Women’s World Cup in 2015. According to Brad Cheney, Fox Sports’ director of technical operations, the company is constantly testing new hardware in order to improve its footage: “The evolution is happening at a rapid pace, with new technologies coming to market every three months or so,” he said. “With that happening, we’re evaluating tons of units for possible use and working closely with vendors in determining a range of different modifications of new systems applications.

“As we try to make this work in weekly sports productions, we’re in continuous dialogue with governing bodies, venue management teams and local officials to make progress as technologies change.”

Application 3: Training
Perhaps the most innovative way to use drones is as an aid for elite performance training. A number of football clubs now use drones to record crucial training sessions and then analyse the footage.

Typically, a drone company is contracted to film training sessions and the footage is then edited by the club’s video analysts to show the squad what worked well and what could have been done better as part of feedback to players. English Premier League teams Swansea FC, Arsenal and Liverpool FC are among many of the clubs to utilise drones in this way.

According to Arch Aerial’s Lee, this is the area where drones are currently “doing some of their best work”.

“As well as broadcasting, the other big market for drones in sport is recording training and analysing the footage,” he says. “Drones allow both coaches and managers to analyse the efforts of their team from an aerial angle. These angles can replicate the popular camera angles which are seen on broadcasts or the top-down angles which allow everyone to get a much clearer perspective than a field-side view.

“Used this way, drones can benefit just about anyone – whether a local youth club or a professional club.”

One of the companies specialising in recording training sessions and helping clubs improve on-field tactics is M7Aerial. It has worked with teams at various levels – including the Welsh national team, Liverpool FC and The New Saints in the Welsh Premier League.

According to Mark Wynne, for many coaches the introduction to using drones is a revelation. “When we show the players and coaches the footage from the sessions for the first time, it’s often a ‘standing with your mouth open’ moment,” Wynne says. “They can immediately see the benefits, picking up things they’d missed when observing the training at eye level.

“Often the first question they ask is laced with worry – they want to know if rival clubs are using drones and whether they’ve been missing out.”

Wynne adds that teams at various levels look to achieve slightly different things when it comes to using drones in training. “For the Welsh national team, using drones has proven to be a powerful visual aid to reviewing and presenting tactics, as the coaching team does not have the luxury of spending long periods of time with the players before their games,” he says. “When it comes to teaching specific tactics – say – where a certain player should move in certain scenarios –  showing footage shot from above works well with players, as they can remember it far more easily than if it’s presented on a static clipboard.

“When it comes to the Premier League teams we work with, their focus is more on having continuity through the season. They want to be able to analyse things over a long period of time and see how players are developing and adopting new tactics.

“For clubs lower down the ladder, it’s more about trying to replicate what bigger clubs have done and wanting to introduce something new at their level – to get those small gains against their rivals.”

Application 4: Tennis coaching
It’s not just professional teams that use drones –health and racquet club operator Virgin Active is using them to help tennis-playing members improve their game.

Called “Drone-ovic”, they drop tennis balls from high up so players can practise swings in a way that wouldn’t be possible to with a ball machine. They also records performance so players can review them with their coach.

“The great thing about Drone-ovic is it recreates the serve and smash experience with greater accuracy,” says Gary Stewart, head of racquets at Virgin Active. “Dropping tennis balls from high, unexpected angles keeps members on their toes and improves technique and agility.”

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