Isle of Man TT Races Feature On-Bike DVRs, HD Coverage

By Kevin Hilton

This year’s Isle of Man TT Races set new standards for innovation, with clean emission bikes getting their own race Friday and broadcast coverage in HD for the first time, with new on-board digital-video recorders and remote stage cameras controlled by SMS commands.

The TT championships—the most famous and dangerous motorbike event on the calendar—takes over the small island in the middle of the Irish Sea for two weeks around the beginning of June each year, with seven days of practice, followed by the races proper.

Broadcast coverage is produced by North One Television, and its head of production planning, Robert Gough, confirmed that this was the first HD TT, if not the first HD two-wheeled motor sport event. The races are recorded and then edited for transmission later the same day.

North One TV contracted SIS LIVE to provide uplinks and special cameras, with the London hire company supplying nine Sony PDW-700 XDCAM HD camcorders, Final Cut Pro editing systems, and a SAN system. A Twin Squirrel helicopter was rented from Arena Aviation, the aerial division of OB company Arena Television, and it is fitted with a HD camera in a Cineflex mount for airborne shots. Super-slow-motion footage comes from a Hi Motion camera, hired from ARRI Media.

On-board cameras are now a key part of televised motor sport, and 16 kits designed by SIS’s special camera department are being used during the tournament. Typically, 10 will be used on a major race, with perhaps four on a second event. Dummy packs of the same weight are carried by the other bikes to maintain fairness.

The HD cameras on the bikes are connected to solid-state recorders designed by British company Stack, which has been producing instrumentation and data-logging technology for 25 years. Although Stack manufactures a range of DVRs specifically for the motor-sports market, its harsh-environment unit, the DVR2-400, is being used in this case for greater reliability in extreme conditions.

Material is recorded in either MPEG4 or MPEG2, which cannot be loaded direct into the FCP timeline and has to be transcoded using the Square Box Systems CatDV software. The TT rules have been changed to allow the DVRs to be collected immediately after a race, with a scrutiniser accompanying the broadcast engineer.

Paul McNeil of SIS LIVE Special Cameras says solid-state technology has improved considerably, even though the recorder has a variable bit rate of only 15 megabits per second. “Solid state is now better able to cope with vibrations, but quality has gone backwards slightly,” he comments. “MiniDV is 25Mb/s, but 15Mb/s is an improvement on last year, which had only 8Mb/s, and the situation will change in the future.” Footage is recorded on to 16G flash cards.

McNeil says the real challenge was the stage cameras, which are positioned around the course. Also known as curb-cams, these are camcorders with Sony DR60 hard-disk recorders. As the routes are closed two hours before racing starts, putting the units into record was a logistical problem. This was solved by sending SMS commands to start and stop recording and to interrogate the unit to assess its status (battery life, recording capacity).

The only difficulty was that ingest stations could not cope with a two-hour file for an hour-and-a-half race. So every 20 minutes, the units are instructed by text to go into record and then stopped, producing 20 files each of 18 minutes duration. McNeil says nothing is lost and the ingest systems are able to handle the amount of footage, which also has to be converted from YUV to Firewire.

A traditional OB setup, based around a scanner, is not being used, but there are three double-expanding side production trucks in the paddock area. These facilities include four main edit rooms, housing FCP HD systems. In total there are 13 independent workstations on the SAN.

OnSight sent out two support teams—one for engineering, and the other to cover editing. The company’s head of client services, Andy Shelley, comments that the cameras—including the XDCAM HDs and the Hi Motion—were selected to be on the same format codec as much as possible.

Once material has been edited, finished packages are sent to the SIS uplink truck to be played out live. UK digital channel ITV4 has been broadcasting an hour-long highlights programme every night at 9 p.m. this week. ITV1 will show a round-up show Sunday (June 14) at 11.45 p.m.

North One TV is also delivering programming to broadcasters across Europe, as well as in North and South America, the Middle East, Asia, and Australasia.

The next big step for televising the TT is live coverage, and Robert Gough says North One TV is evaluating the practicality of this. “It’s a considerable technological challenge,” he adds, “and we are confident that it is achievable.”

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