Fox Sports to Use UAVs to Cover U.S. Open

UNIVERSITY PLACE, WASH.—Golf fans will get unprecedented views of the U.S. Open golf championship next week when Fox Sports deploys several unmanned aerial vehicles (aka “drones) to cover the event. One of the sports’ four majors, the U.S. Open takes place at Chambers Bay golf course in University Place, Wash., June 15-21.

Fox Sports has hired HeliVideo to operate several drones at the U.S. Open, June 15-21.

Fox Sports has hired Helivideo Productions, an Austin, Texas-based provider of FAA-approved cinematography for TV and film to operate the drones, which will provide HD aerial views of the 16th, 17th and 18th holes during the four-day tournament, stationed primarily on the Carr Inlet in Puget Sound. While this is the first time Fox Sports is deploying the drones to cover a live sporting event, the two companies have worked together before, testing the drones at the last three golf majors as well as at a Supercross event at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. 

One drone will be outfitted with a Blackmagic Design 4K production camera and the other will use a Panasonic DMC-GH4. Footage will be transmitted via microLite transmitters from IMT, a Budd Lake, N.J.-based provider of advanced digital microwave video systems. The microLite provides professional-grade MPEG-4 COFDM HD wireless transmission links providing HD video at distances over one mile.

“The UAV relies on IMT’s microLite for its HD downlink and the company’s DirectVu [handheld dual-diversity COFDM HD receiver] for reception,” said John Payne, CTO for IMT. Since the transmitter uses COFDM modulation, line of sight is not required, making it ideal for drone transmissions, according to Payne. “COFDM is a highly robust modulation specially designed for high-performance and high-reliability. COFDM is the only modulation today that supports long-range requirements and the stability that UAV applications require.”

Helivideo was one of six companies to receive FAA approval to operate drones in September 2014. With FAA approval, comes certain regulations, including who can operate the systems and where. One of the challenges Helivideo faces is in complying with the “500 rule” that requires UAVs operate at least 500 feet in the air and keep them within safe distance from spectators. According to Eric Austin, owner and operator of Helivideo, this rule will only apply to spectators and not to the golfers and caddies. The drones will be manually operated by an experienced licensed pilot.

“To achieve the great shots we get, it takes great piloting skills and camera operators that can only be achieved by real-time flying,” Austin said.

Since golf courses have both natural and man-made terrain characteristics, covering the event via drones at a variety of altitudes provides its own set of challenges, according to Austin. “We are flying over the bay and down fairways at various altitudes,” he said. “At low altitudes, reliability has been an issue in the past. For this project, we are tucking behind sand dunes and sand traps. These types of situations have traditionally been challenging for the radio link, until we started using IMT’s microLite technology.”

Austin added that the unique weather characteristics of Puget Sound could provide some interesting footage. “We will have to take the fog into consideration every morning,” he said. “We are excited to see how the live pictures will look, having the course appear as we emerge from the haze of the fog.”

As anyone who has attended a recent NAB Show can attest, drones can be noisy devices. Will this be an issue at an event where silence is golden? No problem, according to Austin.

“Being that most of the shots will be from 500-1,500 feet away, the drone noise is very low,” he said. “In addition, by using the microLite, it allows us to be at a good standoff distance while maintaining reliable video performance.”

Tom Butts

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (, the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.