Broadcasting from a new perspective

Innovative technology behind the scenes

By Antoinette Price

The pan shot zooms in as it sweeps around the stage. Executed with precision, flawless deliveries of television news and entertainment shows have become the norm. Switch to sport and the thrill of the Super Bowl just intensified thanks to the use of new replay systems, higher resolution and very clever camera work. But how do the cameramen do it?

Autocue cameras
Autocue camera BBC

A little help from machines

The broadcast industry is evolving as technology advances, which means for some programmes, robotic camera systems have replaced cameramen. The news is a good example. The same set is used each hour for the news programme, during which the camera makes the same moves as it zooms in on the presenter or to different screens showing the reports. The show can be pre-programmed down to the minute using robotic cameras. This type of set-up is also ideal for entertainment shows such as ‘The Voice’, or ‘Dancing with the Stars’, where each week the set is used the same way, with the same props and timed segments. 

When motion control meets mechanical engineering

A number of companies have developed different types of robotic cameras. These essentially are ordinary broadcast cameras attached to robotic heads on top of pedestals and dollies. A remote control system enables the cameras to tilt, pan, zoom, focus and move. There are:

  • cameras on pedestals which can move up and down to adjust their height. These are fixed to a dolly which runs along tracks attached either to the floor or ceiling. They allow side to side movement for any live or multi-camera studio production. The permanently defined track path enables the camera to be brought right into the set to achieve creative angles and remote panning, which would not be possible using manual or traditional robotic cameras. The pedestal cameras are more stable and move faster, thanks to the track, than manually operated cameras and can be more involved with what is going on in the set.
  • types that are free-standing, mounted on three wheels and can move in any direction across the floor. They can be pre-programmed or operated remotely by someone using a touch control panel, comprising a joystick, touchscreen and panel. Highly responsive, replicating the operator’s every move, they include features to ensure seamless changeover from remote to manual operation, as well as built in safety functions.

The operator uses a control unit to send commands to a computer, which in turn sends commands to the camera on the studio floor, using an IP address for each robotic head. The head then controls the other parts of the system, such as the pedestal and the dolly.

These cameras also operate silently, can carry great loads and are cost effective. With fewer technical limitations, television producers can focus on style and content delivery.

How standardization fits in

The work of several IEC Technical Committees (TCs) contributes to different aspects of broadcast technology.

The electric cables which connect and power the different systems, and the lighting used in studios and on sets, are covered by the work of two TCs. IEC TC 20: Electric cables, prepares Standards which address design, testing, and end-use recommendations for insulated electrical power and control cables, their accessories and cable systems, for use in wiring and in power generation, distribution and transmission. IEC TC 34: Lamps and related equipment covers lamps and light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which are used extensively; for example, during sports events.

All aspects related to audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment, including specification of the performance and interoperability with other systems or equipment, are dealt with in IEC TC 100, IEC TC 100/TA 5: Cable networks for television signals, sound signals and interactive services, develops International Standards for cable networks, including processing and distribution of television and sound signals.

Standardization for electronic display devices is covered by IEC TC 110.

IEC TC 86: Fibre optics, prepares International Standards for fibre optic systems, modules, devices and components intended for use with communications equipment, including indoor and outdoor cables, to ensure reliable system performance and operation.

Souped-up sports

This year’s 50th Super Bowl gave the world a new perspective on American football, literally. CBS Sports showcased a replay system with a 360-degree view and higher resolution than ever before. Thirty-six cameras around the upper stadium froze and revolved around moments of play before continuing live. Spectators discovered field views from new angles of the different players. Eight custom-moulded pylons with 16 cameras filmed the goal and side lines of both teams, while microphones embedded in them enhanced the sound.

In the drone zone

As the global drone industry booms, these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are also getting in on the broadcasting act. According to a report by MarketsandMarkets, the UAV drones market for commercial application is expected to reach USD 5,59 billion by 2020, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 32,22% between 2015 and 2020. UAVs are particularly suited for reporting on stories and outside events that present certain challenges. Whether tracking Australia’s longest grain train, stretching 1,3 km, or hovering above skiers as they swish down the slalom piste, they go where humans and grounded robotic cameras can’t. They shoot from greater heights and more difficult angles, and transmit from disaster zones which would be too dangerous or inaccessible for reporters.

Drones can operate autonomously at low cost thanks to their electronics, which were initially created for example for mobile phones and other consumer electronics. The drones contain components such as GPS units, wireless transmitters, signal processors, micro-electromechanical system (MEMS), gyroscopes and accelerometers. The flight controller collects data from on-board sensors including these devices, as well as barometric pressure and airspeed sensors.

Drones are usually connected to ground bases, often handheld computers. Operators can observe flight patterns and data gathering through a display screen, connected to one or more cameras on the drone, and still have control even if they can’t see the drone.

Essentially electromechanical systems, drones contain electrical and electronic parts which depend on International Standards to operate properly and safely. These are prepared by a number of IEC TCs and Subcommittees (SCs), such as IEC TC 44: Safety of machinery - Electrotechnical aspects, IEC TC 47: Semiconductor devices, and IEC SC 65 A: Industrial process measurement, control and automation.

Lithium polymer batteries that power high-end consumer drones allow a flying time of up to 25 minutes between charges, but the race is on to find the game-changing battery technology that could increase this. IEC TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries, produces Standards which cover all aspects of these batteries, including safety, performance, dimensions and electrochemical systems.

Looking forward

A number of legal and technical obstacles will have to be overcome before drones become mainstream in different industries.

For example, in the US, Federal Aviation Administration legislation requires that UAVs must be in the sight of the operators, which limits the distance a drone can travel and could hinder businesses wishing to develop drone delivery services.
Europe’s fragmented regulatory framework for civil UAVs is still in its infancy. Although basic national safety rules apply, not all safety issues are addressed coherently throughout the European Union. However, the European Aviation Safety Agency has paved the way for the development of rules and guidance materials, as well as safety promotion, in the next two years. It aims to ensure UAVs are operated safely throughout the EU and their impact on the safety of the aviation system is minimized.  

Drone manufacturers and users eagerly await the day a battery with longer life is developed. In addition, limited GPS and other positioning technologies need improving to allow for more accurate identification of the destinations drones are supposed to reach.

 Drone Drone at IBC, Amsterdam 2015
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