New standards in reporting: A modern IP, AV and intercom network lifted the 36. America’s Cup the boundaries between technical, sporting and media tasks on. This not only changed the audience experience, but also the work of the sailing crews, AV technicians, broadcasters and referees.
12 cameras: two at the stern (PTZ and 360 ), one at the bow, two at the bottom of the mast, 2 x 3 in the cockpits plus a body cam (Image: America’s Cup)
A job always has a political and a technical component – said Thomas Riedel at one of the first press conferences on the 36. America’s Cup, in style, in front of the specially brought original of the "jug": The "auld mug" is considered the world’s oldest sports trophy, which has been fought for since 1851 to this day. The issue is not only about top sailing performance, but also about the technological limits of the material. These are always being explored anew – with very potent self-confidence on the part of the defender and the challengers.
In 2020, the America’s Cup World Series had three first preliminaries in Cagliari, Portsmouth and Auckland – the home of the challengers – but only the races in New Zealand were possible. 2021 then the actual America’s Cup took place in New Zealand. Thomas Riedel looks back on 2021 as a technical AV and network outfitter for Riedel Communications: "We had such an inkling, but I have to admit: there we were really on the surface. You really understand the Cup when you do it once!"
Sports dimensions like Formula 1
For gone are the days when sailing clubs actually competed against each other; without the massive financial and personal commitment of major sponsors, such an event is not feasible. The investment per participating team is estimated to be well above 100 million euros. A comprehensive (and constantly renegotiated) set of rules is in place to ensure that there are equal opportunities between teams and as fair as possible development conditions during material development. For example, for training and experimental purposes, only one other boat (and that on a reduced scale) may be built. The challenge here is also that not only do the boats used no longer bear any resemblance to what one might think of as the usual Sailor postcard romance, but the formats are changing drastically on an ongoing basis: The last edition of the AC, won by the New Zealanders, was sailed with catamarans whose mast dimensions were already in the order of magnitude of the wings of common commercial aircraft.
AC75 Class Rule: permitted communication between electronic systems
At the 36. The AC75s are now monohulls, and this has been drastically changed for the second edition. They also rise out of the water after picking up speed on foils, in order to "fly" rather than "float". A special feature, however, is that one of the three wings reaching into the water and equipped with ballast can be raised, so that the projectiles race over the water on two wings. If you take a look at the Youtube videos from the preparation, with which effort a stable "flight condition" was established at all in the beginning (not to mention controlled changes of direction), it is understandable that the individual teams make some secrecy about their designs: Many boat parameters (and an identical lifting mechanism of the foil cant system FCS for the individually designed foils) are given, from then on the material research of the individual teams starts. Thomas Riedel: "To be honest, it’s just like Formula 1, also financially in the same dimensions. Specialists are needed for aerodynamics, electronics, for all areas. The teams really do buy the best in the world."
Playout: from LED wall to TikTok
However, the contract was not awarded solely because of technological aspects or purely on the basis of budget in the very open invitation to tender: "It’s more like an ideas competition, as you know it in architecture. The way such sporting events are produced on TV is actually very old-fashioned: There is a kind of field of play, on which the actual competition takes place. Around it there are spectators and an event that is created for it. And then the TV people come, set up cameras, and film the event. But these are three completely separate areas, which often have little to do with each other."It was not just a matter of finding a supplier, but of finding someone to help develop the format.
Chief Umpire Richard Slater uses real-time data to track races from shore with three other umpires to make accurate decisions quickly (Image: America’s Cup)
On the one hand, this idea of linking the more or less separate areas certainly has its origins in Riedel’s intercom technology, which began early on to offer more open and complex structures than "A sends command to B". There have been many experiences from motor sports to the Red Bull Air Race to the live broadcast of a stratosphere jump. An important step, however, was the founding of a joint venture with West4Media Filmproduktion under the name Circle-O. Its managing director, Werner Eksler, looks at the situation from a media perspective and calls it a "360° concept. This has been realized technically, but also in terms of content: "From a single source, we do live productions, streaming productions, long-format summaries, short summaries, news articles, social media content … which we make available to our rights holders in a cloud."
SloMo/live replay in the TV compound on location in New Zealand (Image: Riedel Communications)
All the framework conditions of the America’s Cup, from the boat construction to the location selection of the venues, were designed to deliver visual and audio material of the highest impact that can be ideally marketed as content. "The goal of this Cup is not monetization in the sense of ‘we now have to take a lot of licenses from rights holders,’ but it’s about the widest possible distribution. With this," Werner Eksler emphasizes, "we try to serve all media that could play something in some form as well."The content reaches very different rights holders: the classic TV station, which not only gets the live feed, but also the entire coverage around it – whether a 26-minute highlight special, feature stories of three minutes or explanatory parts for integration into a framework coverage in magazines or a second-screen playout.
The second level is the organizer’s own media with social media platforms and an app. Werner Eksler points out the differences: "We’ve recently started producing especially for Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. Things that also have a certain exclusivity like having our own 360-degree camera on the boat, which we post-process with two/three-minute clips from the race." The third level for the use of generated media is the classic distribution of news packages to several news agencies, which pass on the material to non-rights holders plus countless over-the-top/special interest platforms (such as podcasts or a sports homepage) with two to three fixed and ready formats daily incl. English voice-over, with all the rights and music cleared as well. The live audience on site got a world stream that also went to each team and their team hospitality and VIP clubs, as well as the many large yachts watching this out on the water.
Technology for multi-channel media
These heterogeneous tasks can only be combined in current network technology. Werner Eksler: "The prerequisite is a completely networked system, where everyone has access to all data and information, otherwise it wouldn’t work at all. At the earlier Cup, there was one organization for live coverage, one for news, one for social media, and another took care of the app. All of this has now been brought together, and this holistic approach means that the channels can be supplied with the things they really need."It is therefore no longer necessary to set up parallel structures for the internal use of the eleven-man crew and the crew ashore on the one hand and for external broadcasting on the other: Using the same media system infrastructure that the crew uses to communicate with each other via their beltpacks, it is now also possible, for example, to conduct a TV interview.
Thomas Riedel also recalls many stumbling blocks in production workflows that can be resolved when event and broadcast production merge. How often had it happened that you realize: Somehow it doesn’t start, but nobody knows about it, even the people at the mixing desk. Now here were race control, direction, event production, security personnel and all boats tied into one system – theoretically able to listen in on teams at any point in time. Or to say, oh the commentator sits today times with in the helicopter. There was a bolero cell at each location, like the escort boats or the helicopter, and the commentator sat down on the free seat in the helicopter, pressed his button and was fully involved. This was also carried over into all the other areas. So not only were pictures produced for the TV viewer to understand the event, but they were also part of the race management for the judges.
Floating AV and data technology
The boats are packed with measuring devices and sensors to ensure that the teams don’t blow their tops with the tons of stress they are under. The last boat class was sailing at up to 47 knots (comparison: the classic Baltic Sea sailor is already on the verge of speeding at 7 knots). The current AC75s were now reaching speeds in excess of 50 knots in races. Allegedly, the Kiwis have cracked the 60 knots. It’s understandable that all teams want to capture as much data as possible, collect it and analyze it in real time on land and on the water if possible – and make sure it doesn’t fall into the hands of their opponents. Formula 1 also sends its regards here.
As a technical partner, however, this puts you in the mix between challenger and defender in every respect, and you have to play an impartial role in every respect. It is helpful that data and communication technology are "mission critical" and also specified in detail by the Class Rule Committee.
Project manager Tim Puschkeit emphasizes that there are no longer the three separate areas of race, event and broadcast, and one does not climb now on a ready aerodynamically fully developed boat and again screw television cameras on it. "We are very, very deep in the technology of the boat. All data from the boat goes through our system between server or switch on the boat. The boat’s data, which they measure themselves, is provided to the teams with a time delay of up to ten seconds, so that the teams cannot cheat or generate an autopilot. But we deliver it in real time to the Umpires, the judges of the water, so they can judge in real time with 2-cm accuracy whether the boat crossed the start line or boundaries too early."
The media system combines telemetry, data from the sensors, foil cant system, etc. and the Race Course data, which in turn is visualized on the boat’s displays. In addition, there are the wireless routes of the beltpacks, a waterproof version of the Riedel Bolero – even the minimum size of the beltpack bags on the personal crew safety equipment is specified in the rules.
The number and positioning of the other sound and image sources, i.e. cameras and microphones, is also identical. They have to provide the densest, closest and most intense impressions possible, if only because there is a certain distance to the onshore spectators. However, this is associated with a very high mechanical load between crew and equipment, not to mention a high risk from the aggressive, omnipresent salt water – AV equipment suppliers on cruise ships know a thing or two about this. Twelve cameras of different types are positioned between bow and stern and the 26-meter-high masthead. On the one hand, fixed-angle cameras, but also movable dome cameras in a particularly robust housing: one pan/tilt/zoom camera at the stern, two more on the port/starboard mast, three in each of the two cockpits, one at the bow, a 360°-degree version at the stern plus a body cam.
Port pan-tilt-zoom camera with its mast perspective (Image: America’s Cup)
Also distributed on board are Sennheiser special microphones, which in principle represent a special challenge: Even at high (wind) speeds, they are supposed to provide the clearest possible communication and original sound, protected also from lines. The headsets integrated into the mandatory helmets can be operated via large buttons and switch group calls and have (like the permanently mounted microphones) a special windshield above the microphone arm. In the imaginable situation "helmsman gets a bathtub of seawater as a full shower", the seawater should abruptly flow out of the windscreen and the crew member (presumably after a short breath of air) should immediately be ready to talk again.
The challenge of RF and power management
In addition to the extreme saltwater challenges, the subject of HF also held some surprises. Tim Puschkeit: "We wouldn’t have thought that either. Especially in our core wireless transmission business. On the water you have other phenomena regarding reflections, reception and other boats that are in the way with their own radar. In addition, we have to cover an extremely large area. Here in Auckland, we have five race boxes that can potentially be driven on. One is named the night before, but is not finally confirmed until the next morning – and can then still be postponed. They are about 3 × 5 km long and Racebox A is 20, 25 km away from Racebox E. All have different requirements, depending on wind conditions. Also, to make the races as open as possible with stadium courses close to the land, next to hilltops and hills, where people can sit on the slopes and watch the race itself."
TV Compound: one of four reception towers for all video, audio and data communications (Image: Riedel Communications)
And another variable: there were drawings of a sample boat, but in the end they had little to do with the boats the team then stood in front of. Thomas Riedel: "The power management of all these systems is super relevant, because the boats are sometimes hours on the water for in the end only a 20- or 40-minute session. But here we are extremely limited in terms of weight and size of equipment." Redundancies were also in demand. Here, the team around Tim Puschkeit was helped by experiences from Formula 1 and a delayed live switching of the various systems on the boats, but here "there is no motor – everything is battery-powered, everything has to be waterproof, so you have temperature problems again. It’s dark and warm on the boats, they’re all built differently, and you have to climb through many a narrow shaft to get to the technology. At speeds you have wind noise, salt water is aggressive, strong vibrations. At the beginning we did not expect that a boat on the foils would vibrate so strongly. And what kind of G-forces are created when a boat dives into the water with the tip on one occasion. It was on paper in the calculations beforehand and you can estimate it, but when you stand in front of it and see it – that’s a completely different story!"
Radio relay to the TV tower, which acted as a relay station (white, round antenna) (Image: Riedel Communications)
How to deal with possible mistrust in the face of strong team rivalries? Tim Puschkeit is pleased with the teams’ experienced solution orientation: "It’s a mutual dependency. Of course, they wanted our system to be installed as quickly as possible, even a year ago, before the boat was updated. They also wanted to know a lot of details to know what to look for on their end. Nobody wanted to show up here in Auckland, we come with our system – and suddenly something doesn’t fit." But there was also an awareness that "If we don’t install our technology, then they can’t sail themselves at all. At least not under official conditions. We do deliver data like the set courses of the race officers to the teams. We have designated one permanent engineer per team as a contact person who really goes in and out of the team bases 24/7. So a very, very big trust, of course under protection and NDAs. Of course, this one engineer can’t do everything himself – cameras, video, Bolero, networking, IP – but he’s always there and the coordinator. In the beginning, of course, no team wanted to be the first to turn on the system and send live pictures of the training. But the system also has to be tested! Some teams were more open about it, others more skeptical. We solved it like this: When we turn on the system, you can put someone from the team in our TV compound, the signals will only be received in this one room. You can see it for yourselves, no one else on TV Compound. With a bit of convincing, this is how the issue of secrecy turned into open trust and cooperation. Plus: We have a big network structure and we not only provide the teams with the world feed, but we can send them all the signals from their own boat, so the engineers in their offices are constantly listening to the communication on the boat. So again a win-win situation. Yes, they wanted secrecy, but they also didn’t want to give up the advantage of seeing their own boat that the engineers had been planning for two or three years. They have gopros that you can only look at after the fact. But with the communication happening live, it was something else again."
Cooperation technology/content production
Did the impulses for the further development of the content format come more from the content side or the technology side?? Werner Eksler: "Together. Based on the data, we understood, for example, that a major factor in winning is speed at the turn. So we explored how best to represent this. We know that we have all the data for this. We can measure it on the boat. We now had to work together to find the parameters that would make the whole thing comprehensible and correct. There is a technology with the possibility to tell a story. But how do you present it and how do you calculate the data correctly to come to a result that is valid and makes sense??"
Yacht tracking by IGTIMI, on the left listed both AC75 and three signal/referee escort boats (Image: America’s Cup)
Apart from Riedel Communications and Circle-O, cooperation with many other partners (some of them Riedel subsidiaries) was necessary. Igtimi and YachtBot took care of the Race Management System (RMS) and the processing of the data for the race committee, Pidso provided antenna/HF knowhow, iXblue is a manufacturer u. a. high-precision (underwater) measurement technology for civil and military applications. The Remote Operations Center (ROC) in Wuppertal was also connected. The livecritical things happened all on the spot, especially since the pandemic could not be planned in advance. But teams like the specialists in Vienna for antenna technology and the software that ran on the boat, for the MPU and all the RMS data, could permanently access and monitor via the ROC in Wuppertal and provided a lot of support.