Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Capturing all the action on the water from the air

Capturing all the action on the water from the air

STEPHEN PETERS calls Henley Royal Regatta the “dreaded highlight” of his year.

Ever since the event was first televised in 2015, he has been in charge of the remote-controlled drone which flies over the course filming aerial footage.

Throughout all five days of racing, he and two other crew members must spend up to 11 hours at a time on a platform in the middle of the River Thames while operating the aircraft.

The platform, about 100 yards downstream from the one-mile signal box at Fawley Meadows, was previously used only by race officials but has been expanded to create a raised viewing area and a landing pad.

Mr Peters, 48, a freelance video producer, shares it with Angus Benson Blair, a pilot from specialist company Flying Pictures and an assistant known as a safety spotter.

The pilot flies the drone using a hand-held controller which has two thumbsticks, one for increasing or decreasing the altitude and another for moving it forwards or backwards and left or right.

The drone weighs 20kg and is about 1.6m in diameter. It has four arms, each housing two rotor blades that keep it aloft like a helicopter.

Mr Peters, who is a qualified drone operator, directs the pilot while operating the gimbal, a rotating grip mounted underneath the drone which holds a 7kg video camera.

He must manoeuvre this at a speed which matches the boats as they pass and also operates a zoom mechanism that can magnify the picture by up to four times.

The pilot navigates by looking directly at the drone as he must not allow it out of sight while Mr Peters uses a monitor that sees what the camera sees.

They communicate through headsets and Mr Peters also takes instruction in a separate earpiece from the team in charge of the overall broadcast, who are based in a temporary office at the regatta car park, off Remenham Lane.

He is told in advance which races must be covered and generally films more than half of the 80 or so heats which take place on the first two days.

By the time the quarter-finals begin on the Friday, races are every 10 minutes instead of every five and the pair are able to film them all.

The drone can fly for about six minutes on a single charge and can be controlled from up to 300m away so it takes off shortly before the athletes’ boats come into range.

It can reach an altitude of 600ft, although the men generally only go this high before the racing, when they capture scenic shots that are inserted into the broadcast later.

The men follow the racing for as long as possible before landing the drone and changing the battery — they have eight on constant rotation in a charger.

The drone may legally fly within 10m of the rowers, which is much closer than the 150m limit set by the Civil Aviation Authority. Flying Pictures has special consent because it has proven it can work safely at closer ranges.

Mr Peters says: “An eight is very noisy with all the splashing and shouting so you can get close in without them noticing, whereas it might be a distraction for a single sculler so we tend to hang back at between 15m and 20m.

“There was one time we got a bit closer than usual to a sculler and we worried that it might have bothered them but afterwards they said they loved it. We get a lot of feedback so we know how different competitors feel.

“The pilot has to look at the aircraft the entire time, more or less. He occasionally looks at a screen that shows his flight data or over my shoulder at the monitor but control of the picture itself is down to me.

“I’ll be telling him to speed up, slow down or go higher or lower as needed but only if he’s comfortable because he’s responsible for judging whether it’s safe.

“Because of that, he can’t always do exactly what I want but it’s my job to make it work as best I can and keep the director happy within safe limits.

“I’m always looking for creative new angles and ways of doing it differently to keep it interesting. That shot of the eights passing under the camera as it looks straight down always looks amazing, particularly when it’s a close race and you can then drop down to catch them and the umpire’s boat cruising away from view.

“Unless you set up a system of wires over the course, there’s no other way of getting that shot. I also enjoy flying at a low level alongside the boats then gradually climbing to an overhead perspective.”

The safety spotter helps the pilot by keeping an eye out for hazards such as other drones or helicopters approaching the hospitality areas at Fawley Court or the Copas Partnership land on the other bank.

If the RAF is due to perform a fly-past, he must liaise with air controllers to check that it is on schedule and ensure the drone is grounded.

He must also look out for members of the public during take-off or landing, when there is the greatest risk of an accident, and warn them to keep their distance if necessary.

The crew don’t fly over the Buckinghamshire side of the river, which is used by crews making their way to the start, but must still watch for traffic on the Berkshire side beyond the regatta course.

Mr Peters says: “Most importantly, our spotter has to make sure it’s safe to take off and land. The weather’s usually lovely so there are always swimmers and leisure boaters to watch out for and we have to ensure people stay away.

“They can get as close as they like when we’re up in the air but take-off and landing is the most hazardous time. We’ve sometimes missed races because we’ve had to wait for a crew to pass us.”

During their first regatta in 2015, a smaller drone being operated by an enthusiast flew much closer to the crew than regulations permit. Mr Peters recalls: “We could hear this buzzing and saw it go past towards Fawley Court so we asked our spotter to try to find the pilot.

“I seem to recall that we didn’t but we told the police and asked staff at Fawley Court to keep an eye out.

“Fortunately, that happened during the lunch break when we weren’t up in the air and there haven’t been any other incidents since then. We carry spare parts in case any repairs are needed but, touch wood, we haven’t had to use them.”

All their equipment is powered by two petrol generators which they must take out to the platform by boat every morning and return to the riverbank in the evenings.

The drone is water-resistant but cannot take heavy showers so if the weather is too severe the team must land it and cover it with a tarpaulin along with the rest of their kit.

There is no shelter on the platform but they have waterproof clothing and if the rain persists they can return to dry land using a boat provided by the regatta.

There is also no toilet so they may not relieve themselves until there is a scheduled break in the racing. Mr Peters says: “You just have to wait because there isn’t any other option. After all, you can’t just do your business in the river!

“That can be quite hard because when the weather’s hot you’re trying to get as much fluid into yourself as possible, which means you sometimes want to ‘go’ more regularly.

“We cover up to protect ourselves from the sun as we’re quite exposed but oddly we tend to get sunburned legs from the heat that reflects off the white platform.

“Despite all of that, we love it. It’s kind of a ‘dreaded highlight’ — in the weeks beforehand, it always feels like it’s going to be difficult but it’s fun when it actually comes around. It’s certainly the highlight of my year.”

The crew stay in three camper vans on Fawley Meadows and get up at about 6am for breakfast and coffee before heading out on to the water.

They bring all their equipment in a single trip and are provided with a packed lunch by the regatta. They are usually off the water by about 7.30pm, an hour after the final race starts.

Although they become more tired as the regatta progresses, it doesn’t affect their work.

Mr Peters says: “In general, it’s an enjoyable week because the weather is so nice. It’s fairly stressful, of course, but everyone is so appreciative of what we’re doing so we always get massive smiles from people like Matthew Pinsent, who’ll say things like ‘boys, you’re doing great’.

“Oddly enough, finals day is less pressured because there are fewer races and a lot more downtime between them. You might be flagging a bit as the week progresses but you get a later start on the Sunday and it’s almost an anti-climax as it’s all over by 4pm.

“It’s an amazing job and we genuinely love it because we’re doing something that isn’t being done anywhere else in the rowing world.”

Mr Peters, who lives near Guildford, grew up in Plymouth and initially worked as a radio officer for the Royal Fleet Auxilliary. He was a keen amateur photographer from the age of 15 and learned to shoot on 35mm film.

He moved to Surrey in 1993 to become an engineer for a television broadcasting firm, where he was responsible for maintaining the satellite link between video crews out in the field and the studio.

He took on a similar role at Sky News in 1998, where he learned to operate a video camera and progressed to the role of head of vehicle technology, in which he designed and built mobile broadcast units.

During this time he shot in a range of locations including Israel and in Afghanistan shortly after Western forces launched an offensive against the Taliban in November 2001.

He first learned about drones in 2013 when viewers began sending in their aerial shots and obtained his permit a year later after passing a series of theory and practical exams.

At the time, Sky only had a helicopter unit so they agreed to buy footage from him and he used the proceeds to invest in bigger and better equipment.

He would do all his shooting, including the regatta, during holidays and when he had time off and finally had attracted enough business to quit his job in June last year.

Mr Peters says: “I used to have a radio-controlled helicopter and aeroplane as a child so thought it would be fun to play with.

“From the moment I found out about drones, I could see they had the potential to change the way we film news and events.

“They can definitely be overused in programming as they’re one of the most expensive items in the budget and viewers can end up thinking, ‘oh God, not another drone shot’. However, when they’re used judiciously, they add an enormous amount of value and give you that ability to see things from a totally different angle.

“Beforehand, for example, you might go live to a reporter standing on the cliffs of Dover but obviously you couldn’t get the cliff face in shot.

Now that’s possible, which is why our slogan is ‘cameras in extraordinary places, doing extraordinary things’.”

Mr Peters became involved with the regatta after visiting the town in May 2015, less than two months before that year’s event, to shoot a short documentary about “what it takes to win at Henley”.

This was part of the Gillette World Sport series by the Sunset+Vine production company, which has overall responsibility for televising the regatta. It included aerial footage of the Leander men’s eight training on the water.

Sir Matthew Pinsent, a regatta steward and member of its management committee, was present with other officials and took an interest in the filming.

Mr Peters says: “They said ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could do this live?’ and I replied that you could. They were taken aback but I explained how it would work and it all took off from there.

“We then only had six weeks to get everything set up. They had to persuade the rest of the regatta committee to bring me on board while we did numerous recces to work out the best spots.

“Because it’s a straight course, we were able to find the perfect location with unobstructed views in both directions, which is vital because of the legal requirements.

“Nobody can say for certain what the future holds but I don’t think there’s a chance of us going away as I think it’s a wonderful event.

“There was a bit of reticence among the regatta management and the stewards’ enclosure membership about televising the racing but I think they’ve done a great job of setting up this high-tech broadcast system in an unobtrusive way.

“We did offer to help with a more elaborate set-up like cameras on aerial wires but they felt that wouldn’t preserve the traditional atmosphere.

“It’s incredible to think that people all over the world can now watch this historic event and I feel very proud to be a part of that.”

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