Before there were drones, there was Skycam

The suspended camera system, known to all fans of stadium sports, receives an upgrade.

In June, Fox Sports used an unmanned aerial vehicle--a drone--during coverage of the 2015 U.S. Open. To fly the drone near a golf course packed with some 40,000 spectators each day, the network had to secure special dispensation from the FAA. Personnel from FAA were on hand, along with city spotters and law enforcement officers, to keep an eye on the drone's flight path and altitude. In the event of any of several dozen unsafe potentialities--a boat coming within 1000 feet of shore, say--the drone was to land immediately.

This was the first time a drone has been used to cover a major sporting event--at least by a live broadcaster--and with the amount of leg work and behind-the-scenes wrangling it took to pull off, it's little wonder. Permission was only granted because Chambers Bay Golf Course abuts a large body of water, which allowed the drone to safely cover the 16th and 17th holes without flying over spectators.


But when it comes to stadiums packed with thousands of fans, the chances are low that the FAA and municipal governments will grant a broadcaster permission to send drones up for sports coverage. Which is why a camera system rigged on a track of overhead wires is still the best way to capture overhead footage of games in progress. The proprietary technology, which should be familiar to any sports fan, belongs to a Fort Worth company called Skycam. Over the past two years, the Skycam has gone through a multi-million dollar upgrade. The new-and-improved Skycam, which the company is calling Wildcat, will debut at tonight's MLS All-Star Game.

"Sports enthusiasts watching from home will see an even more stable, rich and varied stream of footage, building on the incredible viewing experience they have come to expect from SkyCam," says Skycam CEO Endre Buxton. "The footage from aerial cameras, especially the SkyCam system, makes a live action event appear even bigger, in addition to giving viewers thrilling and dynamic angles."


There's no question the technology has changed the way stadium sports are experienced on TV. The company estimates that 25% of game action during a typical NFL broadcast is captured via Skycam.

The system uses a computer-controlled cable suspension platform that delivers three dimensional movement of a camera. Previously, the choice of cameras was restricted, but with camera technology advancing quickly and broadcasters deciding when to upgrade to 4K, it was imperative that the updated Skycam use an open platform that allows broadcasters to swap in their own hardware. The same kind of hardware agnostic approach is used on some high end drones, and it's a feature that's likely to become more common as drone makers get out of the camera business and stick to building flexible flying platforms.


The biggest change to Skycam may be its speed. Where the old system zipped along at 15 mph, Wildcat can go about 25 mph and change direction on a dime.

"The light weight and compact Wildcat camera system can both exceed the speed of play and provide viewers at home with breathtaking views," according to a statement.

Though the company is experimenting with features like real-time ball-tracking, Skycam is still piloted by a human during normal game coverage. The computer controls got an update to make them easier to use, and the new system can also be synced up with fireworks displays in order to provide stunning pyrotechnic shots that no human camera operator would risk.

Whether all this translates to a better viewing experience remains to be seen. The MLS All-Star game starts at 9 p.m. ET when the best in the American league take on the Tottenham Hotspur.