ESPN is adding camera-carrying drones to its coverage of the Winter X Games, using the cutting-edge technology to cover snowboardcross and snowmobiling events this week in Aspen, Colorado.
"It's always been an event that has, in many aspects, been a working laboratory for technical innovation," said Rich Feinberg, vice-president of production for ESPN Inc. "It's kind of like the sports here. They're all about progression and we want the coverage to progress as well."
ESPN worked for approval with several entities, including the Federal Aviation Administration, which approved the use of drones for commercial use last year.
One rule the network has to follow is to keep the drones inside a "closed-set environment" — in other words, not over spectators, or anywhere near where they could interfere with incoming flights to the Aspen airport, which is little more than steps away from the Buttermilk ski area that hosts the X Games.
So, the network will put its cameras on the drones and have them hover over, aside and behind racers on sections of the snowboardcross course and at the end of the snowmobiling course. Testing of the drones begins Tuesday, and the events start Thursday, with the TV coverage planned throughout the weekend.
"Any piece of technology we feel brings viewers closer to the event, we're interested in," said Chris Calcinari, who spearheaded the approvals process for ESPN. "I don't think there are many events that would actually allow us to fly a drone. This is a big opportunity."
Aside from ESPN owning and operating the same event it televises, the outdoor nature of the event lends itself to covering the action with drones.
Last year at the Sochi Olympics, Russian officials approved drones to help get shots of snowboard and ski jumping events.
Drones have also been making appearances at more football practices of late; Miami, Louisville, UCLA and Tennessee are among those who have used them to get different looks during workouts over the last season. But they are not allowed at games, because regulations don't allow flying over stadiums.
ESPN works with a company that specializes in taking video with drones, and its technicians will operate the devices, which will be equipped with cameras that can feed footage back to the main truck.
New angles and cutting-edge footage is nothing new to the X Games, which has employed cameras on helicopters, large cables and even the athletes' helmets in the past to tell the story. On the snowboardcross course, though, the network hasn't had the ability to detach the cameras from the rider and still get on their level.
"I'm as excited as anyone to see what this looks like," Feinberg said. "You can picture them flying in front of the pack of racers, next to them, or just about anything else. We want the viewer to hopefully feel like he or she is seeing something he's never seen before. If it gets them to watch a little longer, then we've achieved our goal."