SportsTV Production Cover Story: Riedel Gives Red Bull Air Races Wiiings!!

When one thinks of intercom systems, one typically think of plain, old-fashioned audio. But intercom systems have come a long way with the help of digital technology. Riedel Communications, unique in the intercom industry in also having a rental division, is at the forefront of such innovation.
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The Red Bull Air Race World Series—the world’s first air motorsport competition and the epitome of aerobatic flying—recently wrapped up in San Francisco during the San Francisco Fleetweek Airshow, following a demanding seven-race schedule that spanned seven months, three continents and a communications system that not only handled intercom audio, but video and data as well.

When one thinks of intercom systems, one typically thinks of plain, old fashioned audio. But intercom systems have come a long way with the help of digital technology. Germany-based Riedel Communications is at the forefront of such innovation and its rental division was tasked with providing all radio, communications and the IT infrastructure for the entire series.

For venue communications, Riedel installed a digital trunked radio system with more than 200 digital radios which were seamlessly tied with the intercom installation.

In addition to the communications infrastructure, Riedel also provided the IT infrastructure for both the organizing committee and the press center. This included Internet access, servers, firewalls, wireless LAN and video transmission to the Internet.

The Race Is On

The races are best described as a Formula 1 slalom in the air. The “track” was a rectangle approximately 5,600 by 1,300 feet, with several gates formed from air-filled pylons marking the track. The width of the gates, which collapse if hit by a plane, measure less than 45 feet. The pilots were required to complete the course as quickly as possible while flying approximately 65 feet above the ground at speeds of up to 280 mph. In addition, they had to perform several aerobatic feats and were penalized for missing gates and for errors. The pilot who completes the course in the fastest time while performing the correct figures and gate crossings is the winner.

Riedel’s history with Red Bull goes back a few years ago to when Red Bull did a big show in Austria and Riedel was hired as a sub-contractor with its Artist intercom system and hundreds of radios.

“When the Red Bull Air Race World Series came up, the project manager called us and told us about it,” said Thomas Riedel, Managing Director of Riedel Communications. “There are so many people involved and they all need to communicate with a reliable system that works on the spot.”

To insure mission-critical communications, Riedel designed a system that leveraged the best of both wired and wireless communications.
All audio signal distribution throughout the area was engineered with an Artist network consisting of three nodes connected with a dual redundant fiber ring. One frame was installed in the Air Race control tower, one in the TV compound and one in the organization compound. The highly complex installation accommodated all audio signals from radios, 4-wire connections and control key panels. For FOH as well as TV production and the time-keeping system, fiber was installed through the entire harbor area.

Every airport needs a tower and so do air races. The mobile construction was capable of housing up to 250 people on its five levels. On the top was the eagle’s nest—the heart of the digital trunked radio installation. In addition, two massive consoles comprised workplaces for race control, referees and the event organization. These special consoles, connected to the digital intercom matrix with several LCD displays and IT systems, profited from Riedel’s experiences with Formula 1.

The other tower levels contained the time-keeping technology, video director for the large screen displays, a place for the DJ and communications headquarters including the Artist installation and the FOH for the event area.

The audio for the broadcast signal was mixed on a Yamaha PM1D in the audio control of the TV compound. The video signal was prepared in Alfacam’s mobile truck which delivered the international feed to local commentators and customized it for their own countries. A total of 15 cameras at various locations provided video, but the most spectacular pictures originated from the on-board cameras of the aerobatic planes. Cameras from Skylink Video-Relay-Service showed the race from the pilot’s perspective. To handle the transmission of the video and audio signals, Riedel used a six channel Tandberg diversity receiver. Additional footage was provided by a helicopter cam.

While these sound like they should traditionally be separate systems, they were really only one.

Additionally, as the data services provider, Riedel had to guarantee Internet bandwidth between North America and Europe (for streaming and organizational communications), provide laptops, copiers and printers as well as address all the needs of the media center and organizers.

On-Site Planning & Support

Support for this type of event begins way before the event itself. “We start early,” said Riedel. “Frequency planning, site surveys, knowing where cables and antennas will go, documentation and logistics with various customs officials.” But the most difficult part? Multinational frequency coordination.

“It’s very difficult...it’s always about local systems like TV and rescue radios,” said Riedel. While some countries are very organized with 99% legal signals, others have a large number of illegal signals all over the spectrum. “Then you have to find the slots to fit in. In the end, it’s about knowing the countries and the systems and having the right equipment and engineers.”

For North America, that meant a mix between good planning and really being prepared for things that come up. Preparations include maintaining redundant lines, should a truck break a cable, and keeping 10 engineers on-site to make sure things go smoothly.

But these aren’t just traditional intercom system engineers. The reason Riedel can successfully run a real-time TDM data system with IT on one side and event/broadcast audio/video on the other is the make-up of those engineers. “We have a group of folks that used to work for Cisco and another group from the broadcast industry. Bringing this knowledge together is the key to our success,” said Riedel.

And what does Riedel get for all its hard work?

“I started the company 15 years ago with theater and live events,” said Riedel. I know these events and we’re still doing the rentals while doing manufacturing. This gives us the knowledge learned from the large scale events we do like the Olympics and we use that knowledge in future products.”

Riedel’s rental division gives the company the unique ability to test out new products themselves.

And the Air Races are no exception. With audio, video and data getting closer together (and basically just broadband services), Riedel has some new ideas that it’s not ready to tell the public about yet, but in the near future you’ll be seeing some new products hit the market.

Michael Silbergleid is the editor. He can be reached at msilbergleid@silverknight.com.