When you watch cycling every now and than you might have asked yourself the question how is it possible to follow a cycling tour over 180 kilometers live on television. On several motorcycles and helicopters.
Well, since I have seen it all from close by I can tell that it takes more than a smile. It involves a lot of technology, effort and not to forget money.
On every transmission similar to a cycling tour, think of marathons for example, there is an airplane full of technology flying in circles above the riders. This airplane is equipped with about 7 small satellites, which can move all around.
This system is similar to the way a camera is attached on a drone. So the satellites are connected to a sort of gimbal. On the ground next to the OB-van is a large crane positioned with two dishes on it.
These are the dishes that receive the signal from the plane. The dishes are also connected to “ gimbals ” so they can be positioned perfectly to get the best reception from the plane. So the gimbals on the plane and on the crane are always in contact with each other and they position automatically to get the best reception.
A Swiss engineer invented this system and it is very precise. It is so precise that armies around the world would like to use it but he doesn’t sell his idea. He is the only one making this system to keep 100% control of his product.
The receiving part has two satellites in case there are more aircrafts like at the three big rounds (Tour de France, Vuelta da Espana and Giro da Italia). When there are smaller rounds than the second satellite is used as backup.
Inside the aircraft there is much equipment and one technician to monitor all these systems).
The other important part of the transmission is the motorcycle. They register all the action on the road being close to the riders. There is a driver and a cameraman. The camera is connected to a box on the motor that is connected to an antenna on the back of the motorbike. This antenna sends it signal straight to the airplane. So the airplane gets all the signals from the helicopters and motorcycles at the same time. The cameraman advises the director when there are obstacles that might interfere the signal, a bridge for example. Sometimes there is no loss of signal but this depends all on the position of the plane and the motorcycle.
The airplane circles all the time in the same direction. Like this is it easier to create an area where the signal is good enough to be transmitted without hick-ups.
When the plane is circling it creates an area in the shape of a cone. As long as the helicopter(s) and motorcycles are within this “ cone” the signal should be of good quality.
There is a separate transmission for the communication between the director in the OB-van and the cameraman on the motor and helicopter. This is a large antenna and this reaches up to a couple of hundred meters. Also the tally signal, a red light turns on in the viewfinder of the camera so the cameraman knows when that camera is online, goes through this antenna.
Some transmissions are very hard to realize. Imagine a mountain stage in the Tour de France for example when there is no direct line of sight between the satellites next to the OB-van and the airplane because of the mountains in between. In that case, they double the whole construction. One set of satellite dishes at the start, and one at the finish line. And even like that there are some places where that is not enough, and which requires a third location. Than they consider an uplink truck on a mountaintop some between the start and finish to get the signal up in the air. At the Tour de France they sometimes get an SNG truck up to a ski station to get the job done.