“Anytime you can drop 50 pounds of nacho cheese onto a street and watch it in slow motion. . . .” Brad Cheney doesn’t complete the thought, but he doesn’t have to.
A former broadcast engineer for the Late Show with David Letterman, Cheney is now VP of field operations and engineering at Fox Sports, where he maintains the same enthusiasm for capturing epic moments, whether it’s the final lap of the Daytona 500 or the aforementioned nacho cheese stunt.
More recently, Cheney, 42, has been leading a team at Fox that’s pioneering new ways to incorporate drones into sports coverage. The network first implemented a drone in golf for the Franklin Templeton Shootout in December 2014 and in motor sports for pre-event testing at the Indianapolis Supercross in 2015. After a break of a few years, those efforts resumed with a tethered drone at the 2018 Daytona 500.
In 2020, Fox Sports began contracting Beverly Hills Aerials for a custom-built, first-person-view racing drone that could fly up to 80 mph with a GoPro Hero 4 shooting at 720p and 60fps; that debuted at the Daytona 500. Since NASCAR returned to competition after its pause for COVID-19, Fox has also been using a larger BHA Titan. Cheney is a drone enthusiast who owns two—a small one for his kids to play with and a DJI Inspire 2 for himself—and is always looking for new ways to add them to broadcasts.
On recognizing the potential for drones in broadcasting . . .
I think that it was probably my time in the mid-2000s. When I was at David Letterman, we were trying some really weird things with camera angles and helicopters, and robotic helicopters, and RC helicopters and things like that. It kicked off there and then sat on the back burner until 2011 or 2012 when drones started to come out and be used a little bit.
When I came over to Fox in ’14, that’s when we really started to see it and it started to be kind of commercialized when the early DGIs came out. So it was there—but it was illegal. I probably spent a good three-quarters of my first year before getting to that legal process of allowing us to fly commercially and doing those things. The challenge of us being at Fox, especially back in ’14, was the fact that it wasn’t just Fox Sports in this little group of people trying to produce really amazing television.There’s a news division, there is a massive film division. And so, anything you did interacted with everybody out. So being legally protected and doing things correctly was really important to the company. Then we launched the first things, and in late 2014, with the Franklin Templeton Shootout with golf, and just kind of ran with it from there, and it really proved to be everything we wanted it to be.
On how the first drone compares to what’s available today . . .
It’s an amazing change not only in size, but quality and maneuverability. It really has been leap years in progress. I like to say that every nine months the technology doubles in drones as we’ve moved forward. The first drones we’re using were the big DJI Octocopters. You’re talking about a three-foot-wide circular drone flying around, and it provided amazingly beautiful imagery and it was smooth and all those things, but it only worked for eight minutes. You had about a 15 minute battery life, but really you wouldn’t test it too far. So you’d fly for about eight minutes, come down, change all your batteries out and go back up again.
As we progressed through, they got smaller, but the camera technology got better. So you’re getting the same images and the same quality of pictures coming back. All that stuff was happening in parallel: They were getting smaller and lighter and more maneuverable, which meant longer flight times, better images, and more maneuverability. And so we started playing through those things and thought about what else we could put it on.
Motorsports, for us, was obviously one of the bigger ones. There are big events with fast things, and they’re looking for fast moving images. I’ll say that what we did in golf really stayed very parallel to what we did technology wise, still using big things that were able to stay up for decent periods of time and stuff like that. Whereas in racing and motorsports, it really was about getting smaller and faster and more maneuverable because the pictures and images you’re grasping for and dying to see at home are those really fast-moving images. When you can move a drone quickly and a car quickly, or a motorbike quickly or any of those kinds of things, it just becomes more compelling.
On the custom-built drone for February’s Daytona 500 . . .
We’re drone junkies to begin with, myself and my boss, Mike Davies. We started seeing these first-person drones—racing drones and stuff like that. As part of our production meetings, we were showing the production teams and the president of our network, and they all fell in love with it and said, ‘All right, let’s figure out how to do it.’
We worked with the team at Beverly Hills Aerials to redesign some systems they had. They had been designing their own patented designs. The goal has always been, especially with NASCAR and the Daytona 500, [to take advantage of the] room to fly—safe room to fly, even with all the fans in the building. We were able to move a little more, go at the cars a bit, make them look as fast as they really are, because even on TV, it’s tough to tell on hard-place cameras how fast the cars are really going because you’re tracking them. The interesting part that we found was that we were able to track the cars pretty well. We have been getting shots of cars that you wouldn’t normally get from that angle while they’re in the yellow flags because they’re running at about the speed we can fly the drone. So we’re not necessarily able to lap the field, but we’re able to keep up which has been really impressive.
On the Beverly Hills Aerials Titan . . .
That one brings us right back to where we started, which is a heavy lift. It’s a beautiful camera that we have. It’s a very high-level broadcast camera that we’re putting on it. What we’ve been doing has been running the FPV early in there just as the pre-race starts, then we bring out the big one for the middle of the race—a lot of the more dynamic beauty shots and tracking shots that are out there for us on that. And then, when we get near the end of the race, we bring back the FPV. Really, we’re taking all the things we’ve learned over the last five years and shoving them into a daily race coverage plan. The same pilot and the same camera people are running two different drones to get the things that we need because they both can’t do the same. So we’re trying to meld the best of the best together and make it all work.
On increased freedom of flight without fans . . .
We get a lot more flexibility in where we can be and what we can do, and that’s really been beneficial to both the people watching at home and also to us producing television. The increased access has really gotten us a lot more utilization out of the drone during race coverage than we normally would be allowed to because in most cases we were pinpointed to maybe one turn in the backstretch, maybe both turns in the backstretch, which doesn’t get you a lot. But being able to get near the pits and over the top of them, see the cars as they come in and out of the pit and those relationships there has been really important to our channel coverage, along with just being able to really catch up on when the yellow flag happens, when red flags happen, all those things about getting around that stuff has been really important to the dynamic pictures you’ve been seeing.
On other experiments in a fanless environment . . .
What you should see going forward is a lot better visual camera coverage of what’s happening because you really aren’t limited anymore as to where you can place it. I think that there are going to be some things that we’re going to lose at times, too, just because when you look at what each sport is going to have to do to socially distance out the teams and the players when they’re not on the field is going to be interesting. We’re entering a time where everyone is being forced to think differently. Because of that, we’re going to see some really great improvements in audio technology and capture technology that normally wouldn’t have been seen or heard in the past because you’d never want to deviate from the things that worked. Well, now we get to reinvent everything, along with the leagues.
We saw some really great enhancements come out of the XFL this year with some of the smaller cameras that followed people around and things that were normally giant, steady camera rigs are now handheld little units that are running around providing the same kind of thing. So I think that there’s a lot of that stuff out there that’s going to be able to provide an experience for people that’s really kind of at the next level.
On improving camera technology . . .
The change in imaging has helped every bit of our industry in the last 10 years. You see more extended motion cameras on shows than you ever have before. That’s something that we push for a lot at Fox is image quality and also replay quality and having those kinds of super-motion cameras out there. The more you have, the better off you are and the more it’s able to tell a tale.
The telling point of that evolution has been that it started out as one or two and they were very specialized and would only capture certain points of time that they could play back. Well, now they’re capturing the action full-time. Now the leagues are using it for replay as well and taking that from us, not from a playback standpoint, but also from taking the actual raw data in. It’s just going to continue to help what’s happening and it’s going to help any of the AR or AI programming, developing swing analysis and ball flight analysis and pitch analysis and all those things about how to make a player better understand what’s happening and fix things before they’re going to occur. All that stuff’s just grown in leaps and bounds in the last 10 years, and it’s only going to get better.
On the possibility of drones during the NFL season or MLB playoffs . . .
I hope so. I think that aerial coverage adds something to every broadcast and the more that we can do and provide in a safe and efficient manner, the better off every show is and every broadcast is. I mean, sure, we’d all love to have the Goodyear Blimp, but I’d really rather have a drone than the Goodyear Blimp because I can get that drone quickly to the places I want it to be to get the shots I want when I need them. So all of those pieces are really going to help us continue to provide compelling reasons for people to watch sports.
On the drone pilots’ creativity . . .
It’s not just the paintbrush, it’s the artist. We’ve used some really amazing people that each have brought something to it and pushed others to do things. Some of the people that you’ll see on the list of Beverly Hills Aerial Team, for example, they do all of our golf stuff and they came over and did racing for us. It’s melding all those things together, and each time you do that and have discussions with people, it continues to pull people further up the ladder and expand what they can do. So it really is just kind of cool to collaborate with these really high-end artists.
A lot of it is selling production on what can be done: understanding the workspace and where you can fly and then also coming up with compelling shots. We’ll have some meetings with the producer and the director about, ‘This is what I’m thinking,’ and it’s their job to go out and kind of find that but also go, ‘Hey, while I was finding this, I did this and it was really cool.’ We saw that all the time in motorsports and in golf too.
The other thing, too, that’s been good is that a lot of the [drone pilots] we’ve been using weren’t shooting sports to begin with. A lot of these people come from commercials and FPV [work]. They’re just young guys who grew up with this stuff and have figured out how to do things and play around. So they bring almost a childlike curiosity to what they’re doing. They’re willing to try almost anything to see what happens and what works and what looks best, which is different from what all of us who are grown up in this industry usually think about. That’s been a really cool piece of this is that you are getting a very artistic approach to things because they’re looking at things differently.
On his dream shots for the drone . . .
In the end, we would love to be able to fly over the cars and behind the cars and those things in race. The challenge always is about the competition, whether it’s pitcher vs. batter, or quarterback and wide receiver vs. the defense and all the things. In racing, the challenge is that we could really change the race if something happened. And so, the goal is getting as close to the action as we can, using camera technology to put us even closer, and provide the images that everybody wants to see. I mean nothing would be cooler, honestly, than to be able to drive side by side with two race cars and watch the drivers turn their heads and look at each other and see what’s going on. There’s a lot of that stuff that we’d love to see that gets you tied into some of the experiences that you have as a video game player in iRacing, or any one of the game consoles out there.