CTV streams new technology along the river

Interest in the Oxford and Cambridge boat race on the River Thames in London spreads far beyond the United Kingdom. The BBC’s coverage is also taken by Eurosport for its European and Asian viewers, Super Sport in Africa, CCTV in China, OSN in the Middle East, Universal Sports in the USA, Sky Mexico and Reuters.

This year’s contest, the 160th time the crews have battled the 6.8 km course, took place on 6 April. Coverage was provided by London-based CTV Outside Broadcasts – and incorporated some innovative, ground-breaking technology.

“We, in partnership with Presteigne Charter, presented the BBC with a totally new technical way of covering the boat race,” reports Bill Morris, CTV’s Engineering Manager for the event. “Instead of employing a number of fixed point video and audio links, which has been the traditional way of covering the race, we put forward the idea of an overlapping RF mesh network using IP (Internet Protocol) along the whole length of the course.”

Morris explains that British Telecom (BT) designed a multiple node system which provided enough bandwidth to enable the operation to take place without any visible sign of switching between antenna locations. All the RF equipment was supplied by Presteigne, while automated switching was carried out using equipment from specialist technology provider, Cobham.

\With a huge worldwide audience watching the race, Morris needed to be confident that the innovative set-up provided enough resilience to ensure a flaw-free transmission. “This was a brave new world! It was a challenging technical achievement, but after a lot of hard work and a steep learning curve during the planning and rigging stages, we knew we had a robust system. We conducted two test outside broadcasts to show everyone that the theory behind the plans was actually achievable – and it was!”

The RF antennas established along the river were located such that if one failed, its neighbours could take over the reception of signals and onward transmission. As it happens, this contingency wasn’t needed.

“The new system meant that all communications, camera data, complete camera functionality, was controlled from just one hub – CTV’s OB10 scanner – located at the race start at Putney,” emphasises Morris. “In terms of engineering control, that didn’t just mean racks, but also colour and telemetry functions. With all camera controls in one place, colour matching was made that much easier. We were also able to handle the remote pan and tilt functions of the racing boats onboard cameras from the one point.”

Previously, pictures from the onboard cameras would have been sent by a short radio hop to a technical launch among the following flotilla, and then relayed to the scanner via appropriate links. With the signals being transmitted directly to the RF mesh, switching between nodes was carried out seamlessly without any manual intervention.

One other function handled through the RF mesh network was control of compressed air jets mounted on the cameras to clear any lenses affected by water droplets.

As well as CTV’s OB10, a smaller unit – OB2 – was deployed at the finish line to cover interviews and presentations. The output from OB2 was fed as a remote source into the main scanner from where Executive Producer, Paul Davies, directed the race coverage. That meant all 37 cameras employed to cover the race, including 8 waterborne and 2 aviation cameras, were controlled from the one truck – despite the considerable distance between the race start and finish lines..

Morris declares that he was very satisfied with the way the whole technical set-up worked. “The system operated without a flaw and the broadcast went extremely well. I rate this innovative technological achievement a tremendous success.”

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