Eyes in the skies: Could drone tech revolutionize polo?

dronesPolo can be a confusing spectacle for the uninitiated.

Horses charge up and down a large rectangular field while players clad in color-coded garbs hack at a small white ball with mallets on elongated sticks.

From the sidelines or on television, it’s hard to grasp if there’s really any skill, structure or tactical nous being deployed at all — unless you know what you’re looking for.

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While binoculars and commentary carried over a loud speaker can help, it’s often still hard to decipher what’s happening on the vast playing area. At 300 yards long by 160 yards wide, a polo field is roughly the size of nine football pitches.

In recent years, cameras attached to player helmets have helped fans get up close and personal, but could remotely piloted drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs,) offer a more convenient, modern solution?

Jack Hardway, a sport’s TV production specialist, thinks they can.

Hardway, who has more than a decade’s experience in covering sports, was among the first to test the concept of using drone cameras to cover polo with his firm Elevated Media Concepts.

He believes the addition of aerial views could help make the sport easier to follow, more accessible to newcomers and provide greater detail of events transpiring on the field of play.

“A drone (has the) dynamic ability to position itself in places where it otherwise would be almost impossible or very costly to do so,” Hardway said.

He explains that when spectators want to get a better view all they would have to do is look up at big screen’s relaying play from the drone cams hovering above. Those watching on TV would also have coverage supplemented by a new, revealing view from upon high.

It’s fair to say, hardened polo broadcast pros are buzzing about the possibilities.

For Greg Hughes and Wayne Willis, co-owners of UK based filming company Polocam, these could even be seminal developments for the sport.

“What drones have to offer could change polo forever,” Willis said.

“In a moment we can be following the game play, the next we will be above the team tent or over the back line for a penalty. The angles are really unlimited.”

Drones take off
The use of commercial drones has exploded across a number industries in recent years.

Some have already been adapted to deliver pizzas, monitor endangered species and provide spectacular panoramic shots for film and journalistic purposes.

A 2014 study from the aerospace industry specialists, the Teal Group, estimated that spending on UAVs would grow from the current $6.4 billion annually to $11.5 billion within the next decade — although much of these figures were accounted for by military spending.

In the world of sports broadcasting they have been successfully employed to provide new, detailed coverage of fast-moving events taking place over a large area.

Broadcasts for the likes of surfing, skiing and sailing — all sports that are difficult for spectators to follow in detail from afar or in a stationary position — have benefited from the addition of spectacular aerial footage.

It’s this kind of revealing spectacle that production companies involved in covering polo are beginning to try and replicate.

Pololine Inc, which provides Internet based streaming and video coverage of some of the sport’s biggest meets, used drones to cover events in the U.S. and Argentina last year.

These initial ventures went well and plans are afoot to increase their use elsewhere.

Drones will soon be used at “all the major WPT (World Polo Tour) events,” Pololine director, Javier Herrera, told CNN.

He describes Pololine’s first drone forays as “a great experience” although there is still some work to do to in “learning how to (supplement) the drones into the broadcast.”

Eyes in the skies
According to Hardway, the way drones are used in polo could also apply to other equestrian sports such as horse racing (see video below) and showjumping.

This would not only to improve the viewing experience but it could also help judges and referees analyze events and make calls based on drone footage.

However, Oliver Hughes, deputy chief executive of the Hurlingham Polo Association, the governing body for polo in the UK and Ireland, argues that any such moves would have to be made very carefully.

He describes appeals systems and video referees as “a possibility but it would need a lot of thought put into it.”

Although Hughes quickly makes clear that on the whole he thinks its “well worth pursuing the technology.”
As in the non-sporting world, however, there are dangers involved in using fast-moving aerial devices without the correct safety considerations. This is particularly the case when sensitive animals such as horses are involved.

“You have a flying object that is using spinning blades to keep itself in the air,” Hardway said. “To combat dangers you would need to layout the ground rules and stick by them, meaning stay away from crowds and do not flyover the horses at anytime.”

Hardway suggests a solution could be found in creating “virtual fences” using the copter’s onboard GPS to ensure each drone could not fly outwith a set boundary.

Willis agrees with this analysis in principle but points out that a number countries have different rules on UAV usage complicating matters slightly.

“We have used the drone to live stream all the games of the Dubai Gold Cup series with no problem at all,” Willis said.

“(But) I am not sure we will have the same freedoms to do this in the UK (for example) as a lot of the time we film in the Crown Estate which has their own rules and regulations.”

If drones are to truly take off in polo, it could be these laws rather than limitations with the technology, or the will to use it, that may prove the most difficult obstacle to overcome.