Blimps Boost HD

Sports drives high-resolution digital cameras on big balloons
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Sports drives high-resolution digital cameras on big balloons


A bout the time the U.S. Navy stopped using blimps for surveillance in the 1960s, enterprising television engineers figured out how they could bring a live TV picture from a blimp overhead to enhance their sports coverage.

Mickey Wittman, who worked with Goodyear in the '60s, remembers.

"We used studio cameras in the blimp, and we opened the door," he said.

Then they installed a Tyler mount that gave the camera and operator a stabilized, vibrationless platform on the outside of the blimp passenger compartment.


Running the blimp camera has come a long way since then. Today, the operator rides inside the Goodyear blimp while the camera follows his remote-control commands from within a weatherproof, gyro-stabilized sphere mounted on the airship's exterior.

High definition has only recently come to the blimp shots.

"The last link in any video paradigm shift comes to the blimp," said Rich Morckel, chief airship electronics technician for Goodyear Airship Operations. The problem with bringing high definition to the live blimp shot was the tremendous data throughput required to microwave an HD image to the ground.

Morckel had been anticipating bringing high-definition capability to the blimp for several years, and thought last year it was time to make a move.

"We sowed some seeds at NAB in 2004," he said. "After the show, JVC called us to say they'd heard from Nucomm that we were eager to make this happen. They asked 'What if we work together, and we provide you with the gear?'"

The critical link JVC provided was the HD encoder and decoder modulator. The digitally encoded signal is fed into a Nucomm modulator, and then into the analog L3 transmitter from RF Central.

The result is digital material in the blimp and on the ground, with the signal being transmitted in analog on the 2-GHz band on Channel 8 or 9.

When it came to the camera head, Morckel wanted a high-definition unit that could easily fit into the existing Gyron gyro-stabilized sphere on the airship. He found the Ikegami HDK-79NA, a 1080i camera with a detachable optical block.

This allowed him to fit the optical block into the Gyron sphere, delivering the raw images to the rest of the camera's electronics for processing inside the blimp itself, without sacrificing quality.

"By employing three HD sensors and prism optics identical to studio camera counterparts, there is no compromise in resolution, sensitivity, color reproduction, etc.," said Ikegami Vice President and Director of Engineering Alan Keil. "There is full remote control of the split camera from a variety of Ikegami panels, including the RM-50 used by Goodyear."

Keil said Ikegami is now developing a similar 720p unit with a detachable optical block.

Microwaving the HD images to the ground isn't the only way to get them to the remote truck, said Mickey Wittman, director of client services for the Lightship Group. He said that by tethering an unmanned blimp to the ground, there are several advantages.

"There's no microwave, you just run the cable right down," he said.


The camera operator works from a remote control inside or near the truck, with control signals riding back up the tether to the camera and robotic head.

Lightship Group is presently testing a high-definition tethered blimp in England in preparation for NASCAR's rollout of high-definition race coverage.

A tethered blimp has other advantages, Wittman said, "You can fly when there are low ceilings, when a helicopter or blimp would have problems going up. It's a lot more reliable that way."

The unmanned, tethered blimp itself can be powered, and a pilot on the ground can fly it.

"It's similar to SkyCam now, but this is a balloon," he said. "You can operate it from the ground. A guy flies it, and another guy operates the camera."

Such blimps could also serve fans attending an event, said John Leland, vice president of operations for National Mobile Television subsidiary, Venue Services Group, which is working with Lightship Group of Orlando, Fla.

"VSG envisions the airship as a relay for direct-to-fan data applications," he said. "This would create an exclusive content delivery system using existing wireless area networking technology to one-way push data for in-stadium access to player stats, live votes and play-by-play information."

The Lightship Group operates more than just tethered airships. In its 110-airship fleet are free-flying blimps for Met Life, Sanyo, Budweiser, and Saturn, among others.

In this day and age of homeland security blimps may be returning to the realm of surveillance as well. Wittman said Lightship Group has demonstrated a blimp-mounted camera sporting Panavision's 300:1 lens with a gyro-stabilized mount.

"They've already done some testing where you will be able to really track things as far as 15 to 18 miles out," he said. "So you could get a license plate number off a car that far away."