Management / How hi-tech drones gave Henley a whole new look

How hi-tech drones gave Henley a whole new look

Henley Royal Regatta, a week when the social season meets sporting excellence, has long been acknowledged worldwide for its tradition and heritage, though perhaps more rarely for cutting-edge innovation. But that all changed this year when a broadcasting and communications revolution came to the Thames.

Henley rowing

The last time the Regatta had been broadcast live was by the BBC in 1967. ITV screened highlights in 1976, but since then any kind of coverage was considered too costly and logistically problematic. This year, however, the event was not only available live on YouTube and the BBC red button, but the rowing could also be viewed from an entirely new perspective, thanks to an initiative driven by Neil Chugani, a senior executive in the media and technology industries who is also a board member at UK Sport, and two rowing giants: Regatta chairman Sir Steve Redgrave, and Sir Matthew Pinsent.

Live coverage was dramatically enhanced through the pioneering use of a drone camera. Although the use of unmanned aerial vehicles  (UAVs) in sports filming is not new, only recent developments in drone and camera technology allowed live pictures to be incorporated into an outside broadcast.

The UAV employed, a Vulcan Raven Octocopter, with gyro-stabilised camera, flown from a purpose-built platform in the middle of the Thames, provided previously unseen angles and views of the Regatta, renowned for its gladiatorial match-racing.

“Significant advances had been made in production and streaming technology, but there was no modern blueprint for broadcasting of the event. We had to start from scratch,” explained Chugani, former senior Sky executive and BBC Worldwide board member. “It coincided with Steve Redgrave becoming chairman of the Regatta this year. It was very much his desire to see this done to the highest standard.”

henley drone

Conventionally, rowing is covered by a combination of fixed and moving cameras along the course – assuming there is a road alongside it. At Henley, there is not. The course is mainly flanked by fields.

“It’s a very complex outside broadcast – it’s over a reasonably long distance (2,112 metres) and on a working stretch of river,” said Chugani, who was cox of the successful Oxford Boat Race crew in 1991 and the 2001 world championship gold medal-winning coxed pair with Pinsent and James Cracknell.

“The navigation channel remains open, and there is a lot of river traffic that ploughs up and down the water freely. We don’t own or control all the land around the site. We had to design a camera specification that took all those factors into account.”

Chugani, Pinsent and Redgrave, all stewards of the Regatta, worked on the camera positioning, in conjunction with Sunset+Vine, the independent sports TV production company, and SP Films, which provides high-end aerial shots.

Chugani added: “We ended up using 11 cameras, of which three were mobile and able to track the race. One was on an umpire’s launch, one was on a catamaran, with a tracking shot that filmed about 400m of the course, and the coup de grace was the drone which covered up to 1000m of the course.”

The drone camera was under the control of a three-man operation which, crucially, included Angus Benson-Blair, the founder and chief pilot of a company named BB Stratus – Aerial Imagery. The majority of drone owners and pilots are restricted to flying to within no more than 150 metres of any organised gathering of 1,000 people or more.

“The unique thing about our drone coverage was that we managed to find, and to hire, the one drone pilot in Europe who is licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority to fly within 10 metres of people not under his control,” explained Chugani.

“The Henley course is 24 metres wide, so we had a four-metre safe channel of operation through the middle of the course, either leading the crews by ten metres or more or following the crews by ten metres or more. It enabled us to capture really fantastic close-up images and has completely revolutionised the way in which we have been able to present our sport.”

In addition to the BBC’s output, there was the ground-breaking arrangement with YouTube to cover racing live on each of the Regatta’s five days of action as well as provide a daily highlights programme. Each individual race, totalling almost 300, was made available on demand within about hour and a half of it finishing.

“We’ve already got some interesting ideas on how we make greater use of the drone next year, and we plan to have live GoPros on the boats to provide on-board images,” said Chugani, who added that long-term it was hoped to generate revenue from the operation, including through sales of highlights packages overseas, to make it self-financing.

But he stressed: “It would be done in a way that’s in keeping with the Regatta’s heritage and traditions. Since its inception, Henley’s timelessness has been prime, and that, we want to preserve.”

Nick Townsend


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