The times they are a changin'
Kicking off once again for a new season with the fantastic BMW C-Evolutions Plus motos. Here is the latest 2019 camera bike set up shot before the start of the baby London Marathon - the Vitality Big Half.
In fact, this is a live camera bike that's fully rigged to send a live HD video feed back to the outside broadcast unit and on to the BBC for live onscreen viewing on BBC1. What's different about this set up is that the bike has no RF mast even though it's a live camera moto.
This acknowledges a step change in technology for getting live pictures off the bike and back to the studio. The RF mast normally fitted to the rear of the bike and protruding around three feet into the air, is responsible for sending the camera signal upwards to a circling aeroplane where it is reflected or repeated back down to a satellite dish on the top of a truck in the outside broadcast compound. The reason that the mast is high above the camera op and the pilot is because it puts out a powerful signal that has potential to harm if body parts are placed between it and the aeroplane.
It's a system we've used for years. In fact in the early days before aeroplanes were fitted with all the necessary kit required to repeat the signal, each bike had a helicopter hovering above it to reflect individual signals back. The cost, as may be imagined, was massive.
Even more recently, aeroplanes that are equipped for live broadcast are few and far between. On most UK jobs, that plane has to fly from Belgium to complete the job before returning home. The cost therefore, while less expensive than using individual helicopters is still high and prohibitive to many smaller events that require live feeds for TV and internet broadcast.
However, the kit fitted to this particular television bike (and to many this season), takes advantage of the UK's excellent 4G coverage. What's on the back of the bike is essentially a highly sophisticated mobile phone. Inside, it is running eight parallel 4G SIM cards - from all the major operators including Vodaphone, EE and O2. The signal from the back of the camera is split between the SIM cards and sent to a receiver in the outside broadcast truck where the signal is re-assembled. In the past the 4G service, hasn't really been up to the job, particularly at mass crowd events where spectators are eating into the available bandwidth with their own mobiles.
Now however, the service is much better. In London last week, there were 15,000 competitors and thousands more spectators. However picture break-up as a result of loss in service was almost non-existent - even underground in the long Limehouse tunnel in East London!
Whilst almost there, the results are still not quite perfect. For larger events and particularly those that are in areas that don't have great mobile or 4G coverage, RF will still be the choice of carrier signal and masts on the back of TV bikes will still be a frequent sight. However the advent of 5G is now looming and promises data speeds that are far superior to the current 4G ones. Once that is in place, then the days of traditional RF must surely be numbered.