The X-Games Proved That Drones Are About to Change Sports Forever

We spoke to a guy with one of the coolest jobs in the world. 

After Christmas, it seemed like every dad in bootcuts was playing around with his new drone, flying it into trees or just generally annoying local dogs. But for a new breed of cameramen, remote-controlled aircrafts aren’t just something that will end up gathering dust in the garage. Drones represent the future of sports coverage and a way to bring extreme sports to a wider, wide-eyed audience. At the Winter X-Games this past weekend in Aspen, ESPN debuted a brand new angle on snowboard, snowmobile, and ski-racing, giving us the view from a high-tech drone that was following the racers through the course. Exciting, dynamic, and completely different, the drone photography was the star of the games, flying just as high and as fast as the competitors themselves.

Maxim got the opportunity to speak with Chris Schuster, a drone pilot for Vortex Aerial, the company that produced the footage for ESPN over the X Games weekend. Chris came down from the mountains to reflect on his remote controlled experience tracking the craziest athletes on snow.

How does one actually become a drone cameraman?

I started out as a hobbyist flying radio controlled airplanes. I’ve been flying RC airplanes since I was 13 years old and now I’m 52.

When did you start going from a hobby to saying we could start filming some really cool stuff?

That was about nine years ago. I had already had job offers to fly for other RC aerial companies, back in the mid-to-late-nineties, but they weren’t paying enough to get me to quit my full-time job. A couple of years after that, the thing that made me take a hard look at the industry is when the battery technology changed and lithium ion batteries came to the forefront. I began to realize that this was going to become a lot more affordable and a lot less technical to fly these aircrafts. All the aircrafts before it were burning gasoline or other flammable liquid fuel and it was incredibly dangerous.

So once the batteries changed, that’s when things literally took off?

The cameras got bigger and more expensive, and just about the time the lithium batteries came around, that’s when the HD cameras showed up as well. I realized that this is a perfect marriage. We started producing more and more helicopters, and they were all single rotor, like a normal helicopter. They were very dangerous to use around talent. We went out and shot freestyle motocross, and it was pretty scary. The footage was great, and the pressure was building, because they wanted us to shoot more and get closer to the athletes. And then we noticed some guys from Germany had created a little flying-saucer type thing, a multi-rotor helicopter. And when we saw that in 2010, I embraced that immediately. I went out and bought one and put a Go-Pro on it and the very first attempt, the footage was outstanding.

When that Eureka moment happened, when did you realize that you could have a viable business doing this?

Originally we wanted to shoot extreme sports. But what we realized is that there wasn’t a whole lot of money involved in that. They just didn’t have the budget. We started moving up the ladder and doing feature film work and commercials, and that got us to where we are today, as far as paying the bills.

Has there been any resistance to the use of drones?

Well, all of a sudden, all of these filming offices would stop giving us permits. They said the RC aircrafts were illegal. Almost overnight, all of the filming agencies across the country began to refuse to issue a shooting permit for any RC aircrafts, citing FAA regulations. Slowly but surely, the work started to fall off. It took us almost four years of diligence and research to work with the FAA to create a fully exempted company. Now my company uses crafts that all have pin numbers like the one’s all aircrafts use. Once the FAA cleared our crafts, we then reached out to local airports near where we were shooting and let them know when and where we’d be shooting that day.

Right – I mean, even yesterday, a person accidentally landed a small drone on the White House lawn.

It can be very dangerous. Even while we were shooting the X Games, there was a scare with an RC aircraft at the Aspen Airport, where a commercial airliner spotted a small drone on the runway when they were coming in to land. They found the guy and it turned out to be some twenty-year-old kid flying a quadcopter he got for Christmas.

What’s the solution to make sure people use them responsibly?

A lot of it has to do with just plain old ignorance. People don’t know they’re endangering the lives of others when they put them into a situation with a full-scale aircraft. It could very well lead to multiple fatalities. You just need to know exactly what you’re doing and avoid doing it near airports. Just the more you know about safety, the less this will keep happening.

Was this your first X-Games?

We had talked to ESPN multiple times in the past, but mainly as a result of the FAA regulations at the time, we never got anything going. And then as soon as we got exempted, ESPN chose us.

When you are filming a jump event, what kind of research and testing do you do before the event?

We got full clearance from the airport, we had to ask them it was okay, and assure them that the pilot was actually a pilot. I have a full-scale single engine rating. That’s what’s required to fly these professionally. We made sure that we cordoned off a large area on top of Buttermilk Mountain that was not accessible to the general public. We worked on the whoel thing for two and a half months.

Did you do test runs?

We were out there for a while calendar week, doing practice runs, making minor changes to the course to make it more exciting. It was a huge coordinated effort, and the athletes were very, very receptive to the idea of this type of footage.

I’d imagine that they were getting to see their performance from a vantage they’d never have.

Absolutely. On the very first day of practice, we reviewed the footage and the first thing I mentioned to the executive producer was that I’d never seen those angles before ever. It was blatantly obvious that we had something special and unique.

Did the athletes express any trepidation about being in the same airspace as something else?

No – we had it set up so the athletes knew that there was an aircraft in close proximity to them. They were all fully receptive and in full agreement – at no time did we really get the drone closer than 20-30 feet from the athlete.

What’s the future of drone coverage of sporting events?

Motocross, golf, desert auto racing; an endless supply of footage solutions. Anything and everything as long as you can safeguard the public at the same time. But everything is really on the table. As long as public safety, equipment preservation, and film quality are paramount, you have a perfect marriage for this technology, and it just works really well and is, honestly, incredibly exciting.