Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the NFL's SkyCam

If you’re a fan of watching televised NFL broadcasts, then you’re also familiar with a not-so-new camera technology called SkyCam, even if you’ve never actually heard of it before.

Ever wonder how they’re getting that camera shot from right behind the quarterback’s shoulder?

Or from behind the field goal kicker’s back just as he’s lining up for the kick?

Or the sweeping camera angle that seems to swing seamlessly down from the upper deck and across the length of the field?

Ever wonder what that floating black package is at the corner of your TV screen that seems to fly away as soon as its spotted?

That’s SkyCam, at your service

All those flying NFL videogame angles are brought to you by broadcasting machinery that’s appropriately called SkyCam.

You’ll be amazed at how modern technology meets old-fashioned pulleys-and-cables to bring football fans exciting new on field looks at the game and players they love.

This article answers frequently asked questions about the history, technology and usage of this astonishing flying camera in the sky.

Enjoy!

What exactly is SkyCam?

By definition, SkyCam is “a computer-controlled, stabilized, cable-suspended camera system that is maneuvered by two operators through the three-dimensional space of a stadium or arena to bring video game-like camera angles to television sports.” 

In other words, it’s a computer controlled digital camera that flies across the field using four cables that pull it every-which-way, using its tilt/pan/focus motor to capture the on-field action from whatever angle the director requests.

Anyone who’s played the Madden NFL video games knows they use the SkyCam view as a default, and now that same view has become extremely familiar during pro football television broadcasts and other sporting events.

What equipment is used to make SkyCam work?

The SkyCam consists of three major components:

  1. The reel, which is the motor drive and cables;
  2. The mobile spar, which is the moving video camera package that includes a motor that can pan and tilt;
  3. The computer, which is considered ‘central control’ and contains software and joystick hardware that allows an operator to fly the camera.

How big is SkyCam and how much does it weigh?

The entire ‘package’ you see flying across the field, mobile spar, is 36” tall and weighs 45 pounds.

What is the SkyCam cable made out of?

The cable that holds up SkyCam is a combination of things.

Inside, it’s a single mode optical fiber with conductive elements.

Outside, the cable’s jacket is a braided Kevlar.

SkyCam Wildcat

How strong is the SkyCam cable?

Just a single SkyCam cable is capable of supporting 600 pounds.

So with four cables, that’s 2,400 pounds of capability swinging around only 45 pounds worth of weight.

Why aren’t SkyCam pictures jumpy and blurry?

Skycam’s pictures look steady because it uses a four-axis stabilization system.

Each of those axis also has feedback loops that are stabilized, so the result is a picture that looks like it was shot on a tripod.  

Does SkyCam have microphones?

Yes, they’ve added microphones in order to capture the on field sounds of equipment crashing underneath.

How does SkyCam actually work?

The SkyCam works by hanging the high-level camera from four computer-controlled reels, each holding @ 1,400 feet of cable that powers and flies the camera.

Each of the four reels are located outside of the stadium, typically on the ground.

The wires extend upwards from each of the four reels and are rigged through pulley-wheels located at the extremities of the stadium and then on to the camera itself.

The digital camera sends the video to the computer hub on the camera deck through fiber optics.

How fast can the SkyCam fly?

The SkyCam can move up to 30 MPH.

Given that the average NFL player runs at 18-20 mile per hour, the SkyCam is the only camera out there that can not only keep up with but also travel downfield with sprinting football players.

How low can SkyCam go?

The operators of the SkyCam could technically take the mobile spar all the way to the ground, which they do to set it up in the beginning.

The NFL likes SkyCam to stay a minimum of 12 feet from the ground.

It’s possible to drop lower than that, but the operator must keep the mobile spar at least 20 yards behind an active player if it does.

Who operates the Skycam?

It’s a two-man team – a pilot and a camera operator – that must work in perfect synchronization.

There is no motor in the SkyCam, so it’s all up to the pilot to control the cables that fly it around.

The camera operator is in charge of the panning, tilting, zooming and the focus of the SkyCam.

One of the camera operator’s joystick positions the camera, the other focuses it.

All in all, though, it takes a total of nine people to bring viewers the SkyCam angle.

Where are the two main Skycam operators located?

In the press box at the top of the stadium where they can get a clear line of sight across the field.

They are seated where they can see the field and see their computer monitors simultaneously.

How tricky is it to operate SkyCam?

It’s said that operating the SkyCam is a lot like operating a video game, probably because the operators use control pads and joysticks.

The SkyCam is on a Cartesian grid system, which is defined as “a coordinate system that specifies each point uniquely in a plane by a set of numerical coordinates, which are signed distances to the point from two fixed perpendicular directed lines, measured in the same unit of length.”

In simpler terms, the football field is divided into an x/y plane just like how they do for a map so the computer can pinpoint any spot on the map, similar to how a GPS system can find an address.

Where can the SkyCam fly and not fly?

The SkyCam can move from end zone to end zone and from sideline to sideline.

Although, the computer defines boundaries that the SkyCam can’t go out of primarily for safety purposes.

Are there ever more than one SkyCams at a football telecast?

Yes, in some games there are two.

One of them floats about forty-feet higher than the other one.

When was SkyCam first invented?

The SkyCam was invented in the 1980’s by a filmmaker named Garrett Brown and was eventually acquired by Winnercomm, Inc., its current owners, in 2004.

Brown was the same man who invented the Steadicam, the camera rig a camera operator can hold while moving around yet still take a completely steady shot.

When was SkyCam first ever used?

Due to limitations in the computer software and the servo motor technology used to propel the camera through the air, the SkyCam received limited use at first.

The NFL was the first to publicly use SkyCam.

It happened in the fall of 1984 at a preseason game in San Diego between the Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers.

When was SkyCam first used in a Super Bowl?

The SkyCam was first used at Super Bowl LI (51) on February 5, 2017.

In the big game at NRG Stadium in Houston TX between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons, fog settled in and the game began to be increasingly difficult to see.

The NFL hadn’t used it extensively up to that point because of “some of the system’s limitations,” but they had happened to have set it up at NRG prior to the game.

The positive reaction from fans was overwhelming.

Didn’t the XFL use the SkyCam a lot?

Absolutely.

In fact, the XFL was one of the first professional leagues to make extensive use of SkyCam as a principal camera angle for broadcasts.

They dubbed it the ‘Xcam’.

After the first game in the winter of 2001, though, XFL producers realized the limitations of the Xcam as a principle angle (see below), but it remained in regular use for the rest of that season.

Why doesn’t the NFL use SkyCam as their principle camera angle?

It comes down to perspective.

From the SkyCam’s perspective, vertical distances are distorted so it becomes difficult to judge yardages properly.

In a game like football where every play is about gaining or losing yardage, SkyCam’s perception limitation has kept it as just an occasional go to angle.

Plus, in order to avoid striking the cables required to move SkyCam, the ball is always moving away from the camera, which greatly limits the number of shots a director can choose from.

What is the latest use of the SkyCam?

This season, NBC has developed something it calls ‘The Green Zone’ and has mostly used SkyCam to deliver it to the screen, not because it’s required but because network execs thrilled with Skycam wanted to use it even more.

The Green Zone shows up on third downs as a highlighted area on the field between the line of scrimmage and the first down line.

That area is shaded a darker green to help viewers visualize how far the offense has to go to make a first down.

Have there ever been any SkyCam mishaps?

The computer defines boundaries that the SkyCam can’t go out of for safety purposes and that has kept the number of accidents to a minimum.

But still, there have been a couple of mishaps made public.

SkyCam Mishap 1:

SkyCam was supposed to be used during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles to cover the Ceremonies and the Track and Field events.

During its test run at the Coliseum, the images SkyCam spit out were incredible, but not impressive enough to override safety.

Potential danger to attendees and athletes had to be considered by officials when during a final run with the SkyCam running fast to the ground across the entire field a wire snagged and bent one of the arms.

As a result, SkyCam’s Olympic use was scrapped. 

SkyCam Mishap 2:

The most famous SkyCam mishap occurred during the 2011 Insight Bowl on December 20.

While players from both the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Oklahoma Sooners were on the field, SkyCam crashed to the ground with just over two minutes left to play.

A wide receiver for Iowa named Marvin McNutt was almost hit by the falling SkyCam.

Was McNutt seriously injured?

No, thankfully, the camera just missed him, but he did end up getting tangled up in the cables.

Afterwards, McNutt said that, “…it was just pulling me and I knew I didn’t want to go with it.”

McNutt joked, “I feel like someone was trying to kill me on that staff.”

During about a five minute delay, all the cables and the camera were removed from the field without further incident.

Did they ever figure out why SkyCam fell?

Afterwards, Winnercomm, the owners of SkyCam, said in a statement:

“We have identified the issue to be the result of a detached bolt assembly, where a fastener came apart from a bolt on a corner of the Skycam housing,”

Does the NFL also use drones now?

Yes.

The NFL is the first major sports organization to receive permission from the FAA to fly drones over its fields, but it’s not as unlimited as it sounds.

The NFL had requested a “drone exemption,” an exception to the general rule that drones cannot be used for commercial purposes.

Permission was granted but with major limitations, such as which particular drones could be used and when they could be operated.

The biggest limitation is that drones cannot be used during games.