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Drones over Sochi all part of the Olympic TV technology game

Chris Zelkovich
Eh Game

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A drone camera flies above the slopestyle course in Sochi. (The Canadian Press)

Since Edward Snowden hasn't mentioned Sochi in any of his leaks about American spying, we'll have to accept the official Olympics broadcaster's explanation that those drones flying over the Russian city are cameras and not espionage devices.

With all the pre-Games publicity about security fears in Sochi, it would be natural to assume that any high-tech devices seen zipping around and hovering over the ski slopes might be gathering surveillance on potential terrorists -- or even The Village People.

But the drones are just part of the high-tech arsenal broadcasters use to bring viewers the best images possible. The unmanned flying cameras are a continuation of a television tradition that has seen broadcasters use big events like the Olympics to break in new technology.

Features such as the virtual leader lines -- used in ski jumping and speed skating to show how far competitors are ahead or behind the leader -- and virtual lane markers in swimming -- used to help viewers identify who's who with all that splashing -- have made their debuts during the Olympics. So have many of the television staples we now take for granted, such as those tracking cameras that move along with the competitors.

[Related: CBC still has the touch when it comes to Olympics coverage]

The drones are similar to the cable-cam that gives viewers those great birds-eye views during football games, but they have some big advantages: there are no cables so they can go anywhere and they're a lot cheaper than using helicopters.

"We can go really, really close. And we are really quiet, so nobody is distracted," pilot and cameraman Remo Masima to the Associated Press.

Much of the Olympic-style technology tends to be rather expensive, but here's where the drone is different.

AP reports that drone can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $37,000 for a top-of-the-line model. That's substantially cheaper than renting a noisy helicopter at a cost of a few thousand dollars an hour -- then hiring a crew and bringing along your own pricy equipment.

The drones also provide a lot more flexibility and therefore better images. Olympic Broadcasting Services, which provides the official world feed of all the events at the games, says drones allow them to get a lot closer than a helicopter.

CBC viewers have no doubt marvelled at some of images produced by drones, especially during the snowboarding events.

But viewers haven't seen the drone cameras, which is basically in line with most of the high-tech innovations in Sochi. One reason is that there really isn't much room for any more innovations, unless somebody comes up with a way to transmit smells through television sets.

[Related: CBC shows it still has the touch when it comes to Olympics]

Another is that with the proliferation of big-screen, high-definition televisions, broadcasters are focusing on transmitting better signals. That's why some of those super slow-motion shots that get you almost close enough to see the competitors' nose hairs are so spectacular.

It wasn't that long ago that any broadcast that originated on the other side of the world was either snowy or plagued with more break-ups than Madonna.

Today, distance is no longer an issue thanks to advances in technology. And neither is volume -- and that may be the biggest innovation in Sochi. Every major broadcaster, including CBC, is either televising or streaming every minute of competition.

By comparison, when NBC offered its first online Olympic streaming eight years ago in Torino, it involved one hockey game. That was it. This time around, it's offering 1,000 hours of competition online.

And anyone who tried to watch that hockey game in 2006 will attest to the fact that the quality is at least 1,000 times better. In Canada, for the first time in this country CBC is offering 12 multilateral online feeds complete with commentary.

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