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World Surf League turns to drones to enhance its broadcasts

Surfing never looked this good. (Video: World Surf League)

If there was a sport that was cut out for drones, it’s surfing. The events are held in beautiful locations that lend themselves to aerial photography. And surfers ply their craft far from land, which creates a tougher challenge for stationary cameras. With a drone in flight, broadcasters get a more intimate view of how surfers work.

The World Surf League begin experimenting with drones last year, and has used footage in its live broadcasts since this May.

“It’s a game-changer,” said Rob Hammer, a vice president of post productions at the World Surfing League. “From an overhead view, places like Tihaiti or Fiji, no one’s ever gotten those shots for a live broadcast.”

The league brings three or four DJI Inspire drones to a competition, and the drones rotate due to their short battery life. They’ve flown in seven countries: the United States, Australia, Brazil, Portugal, France, Fiji and French Polynesia.

“You’re only going to get a drone up for half a heat, then bring up another one,” Hammer said. “Surfing is kind of mercurial, you never know what’s coming. A lot of times it will look like a big wave but it won’t be. You think someone is going to take off but they decide not to.”

Once a surfer catches a wave,  operators position their drone ahead of the surfer’s path to get a close shot.

In Rio de Janeiro, Hammer ran into the problem of hobbyists flying drones near the competition. Hammer’s team eventually tracked down the drone pilots and asked them to stop flying.

“There were at least three or four drones in the air going over the water at the same time,” Hammer said. “It’s pretty nutty, there could be a collision at any point. The rules down there really don’t exist.” 

Hammer says the league reaches out to local authorities to get clearances before flying at events.

He didn’t use drones for the live broadcast coverage at one event this year, the U.S. Open of Surfing because of restrictions in Huntington Beach, Calif. that made it too difficult to operate effectively. While the league doesn’t have an FAA exemption to fly in the United States, Hammer says his operators have been thoroughly trained.

For the league, the next step in cutting edge photography is going to be submersibles, so that viewers can see how the water is breaking.

“You go down to the reef level and pan across the reefs when people are surfing above you,” Hammer said. “It’s an interesting part of sport you can’t explore because you can’t see it.”