How Will Drones, 4K Cameras Impact College Sports Production Near and Long Term?
While the majority of the discussion at last month’s SVG College Sports Summit focused squarely on how to create the best-quality college-sports content cost-effectively today, an afternoon panel peeked into the technological crystal ball to address high-end next-gen technologies like unmanned aerial systems (better known as drones) and 4K production.
The Rise of Drones in College Sports
Drones have been a hot topic in live sports production over the past year. Several major sports networks have experimented with using cameras mounted on unmanned aerial systems (UASs), including ESPN (X Games), Fox Sports (Monster Energy AMA Supercross), and NBC Sports Group (Arnold Palmer Invitational). Meanwhile, the use of drones has grown dramatically as college athletics programs look for new ways to capture game film at practices. However, FAA regulations on drones create a massive valley between their use during closed practices and during a game that is open to the public.
“To do what you folks need to do with [drones] is not a problem. A number of professional and college teams are using unmanned systems to tape practices,” said Tim Romashko,VP, Atlanta Chapter, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). “The key, though, is, that is a closed environment, where you don’t let outsiders in. The movie industry has been using it a lot, but that is because they control that area. The problem [live sports productions] have is, when you get a stadium with a whole bunch of people in it, they are not willing participants. That is where we start running into problems with pro and college events.”
Flying unlicensed drones over major sports events is illegal, and it has become such an issue that, last fall, the FAA implemented a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) making all college and professional sports events no-fly zones.
Although a state-funded school can potentially obtain a Certificate of Authorization (COA) to legally fly drones, it can’t do so for an ongoing commercial operation. To fly a UAS on a long-term basis, a school must obtain a 333 exemption from the FAA (333 is the section of FAA code that prohibits drone use in public areas). To obtain a 333 exemption, the applicant must have a licensed pilot to operate the aircraft, which must be an FAA-approved aircraft (not self-built), and must supply a proposal detailing how it will avoid infractions (flying at night, flying out of line-of-sight, flying over people). For users who break these rules, the FAA recently raised fines from $10,000 per infraction to $25,000, and a single flight can garner multiple infractions.
“It really narrows the field as to who can legally do this, because you are talking about some serious money. The UAS with a licensed pilot and the aircraft, payload, data link, and ground station gets very pricey,” said Romashko. “I hate to be such a downer and tell you that you just can’t do it, but, legally, at this point, you just can’t do it. Hopefully, as the FAA gains confidence that we can do things safely, the rules will be lessened and let us do a bit more.”
According to Romashko, the FAA has begun releasing more 333 exemptions after heavily restricting them early on. In addition, new rules expected to take effect in 2016 or 2017 will significantly open the small-UAS (under 55 lb.) market and will allow trained operators to fly these drones rather than restricting them to licensed airplane pilots. However, systems larger than 55 lb. will remain difficult to license and use in sports coverage for the foreseeable future.
“[Obtaining approval to fly drones] really is an ongoing process,” said SVG Chairman Tom Sahara, VP, operations and technology, Turner Sports. “If you ask them, ‘What do I need to do?,’ they say, ‘You tell us what you’re doing first.’ You present your plan, they ask questions, you provide the answers, and you go back and forth. It’s best to have people who know how to [apply for] exemptions to the FAA and … understand the terminology and formatting for their particular processes.”
4K Production: A Tool for Today and Tomorrow
Although 4K production may not face the regulatory challenges of drones, the next-gen format has more than its share of obstacles and benefits. The camera and display sides of the 4K equation have come a long way in just two years, but the rest of the 4K-production ecosystem remains fraught with unanswered questions. That said, many college and universities are making the jump to 4K to future-proof themselves once — and if — the format becomes a de facto standard.
“4K is still not for everyone and can be difficult, but the ability to acquire in 4K is advantageous,” said Ken Rowe, senior technical specialist, Canon. “If you have the money [to buy a 4K camera], you don’t necessarily have to produce in 4K right now, but it gives you the ability to be future-forward. As camera manufacturers, we are seeing it’s all about versatility: a combination of resolution, color, and frame rates. Is this going to give me what I need today, but will it also give me what I need in the future?”
Mike DesRoches,, senior sales support engineer, Sony, seconded that point: “The real value to [college sports production], even if you are not using it now, [is that] having a camera that is 4K or more resolution gives you the ability to oversample and yield better-looking HD content. All of us camera manufacturers have a solution to suit your need, so you can’t make a bad decision, but you can certainly make the wrong decision. And the wrong decision, quite frankly, would be to shoot something that is not going to protect your asset moving forward.”
In an effort to cater to today’s needs while preparing for tomorrow’s challenges, Grass Valley offers its eLicense program, allowing users of its LDX cameras to upgrade instantly with new features. For example, the LDX 86 cameras introduced at NAB 2015 allow users to upgrade to 4K, 6X HD slo-mo, or 3X HD slo-mo through the eLicense program (seven days or perpetual license). As a result, users who purchase the camera can acquire content in HD/3G acquisition today, while still having the ability to shoot 4K/high-speed one-off productions or preparing for a 4K future.
“We see 4K and high frame rate as two different tools that can be used in the production process,” said Bruce Lane, strategic accounts, sports venues, Grass Valley. “Customers may not be able to afford it out of the gate, but they may be looking to future-protect themselves. The licensing allows them to start at HD and then upgrade [from there]. Our methodology has been to try to be as flexible as possible and match the business models that our customers demand.”
Not Yet for 4K to the Home
Although capturing in 4K creates a crisper image and can help protect your content and postproduction workflow for future generations, transmitting the massive 4K signal and delivering 4K content to the home is still very much a work in progress. Sahara equated the current state of 4K delivery to HD delivery in the mid ’90s, when it was still very much “a science project.”
“Everyone understands now that the early 4K distribution will be over-the-top,” he said. “But, in current encoding, you can deliver that 4K stream in, maybe, 25 MBps, and, if you measure what most providers — Comcast or Verizon — typically provide, your connection is not able to sustain that bitrate. So, even if you could create the content, you really can’t deliver it consistently to the consumer.
“We are still very early in this process,” he continued. “If you double the demand numbers each year, we are still four to five years before we get to the tipping point where this technology will be ready. So, in technology years, it’s still a ways off.”