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How Skycam Works

Skycam on the Horizon
A technician inspects a Skycam before an event.
A technician inspects a Skycam before an event.
© Michael Pimentel / Pimentel /

Some fans and even team owners may cringe as Skycam hurtles at 30 miles (48.3 kilometers) per hour past their favorite (and highly compensated) athletes. After all, a heavy camera doing its best impression of meteorite could leave a permanent crater in the back of someone's noggin.

Skycam's operators always tout the system's redundant safety features. It all starts with the software.

Critically, the software automatically performs obstacle avoidance duties. Before a broadcast, the computer operator presets boundaries for the camera and uses the software to designate no-fly zones, such as the scoreboard and video screen suspended in the middle of a basketball arena. Doing this work in advance leaves the pilot free to follow action on the field below without having to worry about causing a spectacular collision and equally spectacular public relations fiasco.

These precautions can't prevent every incident, though. During a 2007 NFL game between the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints, the camera pilot accidentally guided the camera onto the field. The game was stopped momentarily.

At the 2011 Insight Bowl between the Iowa Hawkeyes and Oklahoma Sooners, a fastener on the Skycam assembly came apart, causing the camera to crash onto the field below. The unit narrowly missed Iowa quarterback Marvin McNutt.

During the 2013 Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a suspension rope snapped and fell into the fans in the grandstand. As if that wasn't bad enough, the rope also landed on the track, where stock cars snagged it, causing it to whip through frantic spectators. Ten people were hurt, three cars were damaged and the race was delayed. Fortunately for everyone involved, no one was seriously injured.

These kinds of accidents have been rare. Mostly, audiences have been dazzled by the constant improvement and dynamic coverage that Skycam provides.

Skycam and its cousins broke all sorts of new ground in TV broadcasts. They bring flying, Superman-like angles possible for sports, concerts and movies and make these experiences more powerful than ever before.

Yet even as Skycam coverage becomes more common, it may face serious competition from drones. Drones can carry increasingly heavy payloads and they don't require a system of ropes and reels to remain airborne.

So in a few years, you may see swarms of drones hovering over your favorite team. But until then, Skycam coverage offers views and angles that no other camera system can match.