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Why Red Bull's 220mph F1 camera drone is a game-changer

Max Verstappen makes quite the mistake as he boots Red Bull's RB20 2024 Formula 1 car out of Chapel.

A rapid flick right of the steering wheel ensues to correct the slide. Then he's on his way down the Hangar straight in a flash of blue, red, and yellow. Yet the error is utterly understandable: Silverstone was soaking as Red Bull shook down its latest challenger two weeks ago.

But the speed of the car even in such conditions, and the heart-stopping work to gather up the wayward rear, is being shown in a stunning new spectacle. It's a potential game-changer for how F1 television pictures are captured.

This is because Verstappen is being chased by a camera drone. One that can hit a top speed of 220mph and follow an F1 machine for a full lap of Silverstone's grand prix layout. And it's been developed by Red Bull's Advanced Technologies division, in conjunction with the Dutch Drone Gods company.

 

FPV (first-person view) drone pilot, Ralph Hogenbirk, also known as Shaggy FPV, takes up the story to Autosport: "About one year ago, Red Bull came to us with a question: 'we've been thinking about this for a while, we want a drone that can follow a Formula 1 car for a full lap, keep up, film it and make something a video that looks cool as well – can you do it?'

"Then we started working out how could we ever get it to work. We saw some ideas from people that have done fast drones before. They were meant to go fast, one time, in a straight line. But then they didn't have any HD cameras, no recording capabilities – so that's where we just developed that idea and started experimenting how we could do it.

"This is the third version already, so we went a long way just to get it to work."

Red Bull's stated aim is to try to recapture something of the magic of old F1 broadcasting – think the grainy, moving onboard footage from the 1980s and 1990s. The cars aren't going any slower now – in so many areas F1 overall is faster – but the progress in camera and broadcasting technology means the current footage loses a less definable but important quality.

Then there is something you can clearly see is different in modern F1 broadcasting compared to that of the past.

"When you go for the wider shots where you can see the car, you lose that sense of speed," 13-time grand prix winner, Red Bull ambassador and TV production company co-founder David Coulthard tells Autosport.

"If you go tight, again, you've got no sense of it. In car shots are great because it focuses on the cockpit, but again you're not really getting the perception of speed that the drivers are getting."

Enter the Red Bull Drone 1 – the official name of the third prototype DDG has produced so far in this project. To reach its current state, after extensive testing over eight months in 2023 – mainly around a field – the DDG team brought an earlier version to Silverstone to show its work to Red Bull.

Red Bull Drone 1 piloted by Ralph Hogenbrik, Shaggy FPV

Red Bull Drone 1 piloted by Ralph Hogenbrik, Shaggy FPV

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

What it produced is a rocket tank-shaped main body, along which four propellers are mounted on four arms. Inside, there are two cameras.

One captures an "analogue", per Shaggy, live feed that is played back to its headset-wearing and F1 car-chasing pilot, with a time lag of just 30-40 milliseconds. The other is a deconstructed GoPro camera to capture the action in high definition.

The drone successfully chased an RB19 being driven by Liam Lawson around the full 3.7-mile Silverstone lap. After this, RBT recreated the drone's carbon fibre, glass fibre and 3D polymer body shape and main support structures using its F1-standard materials printing equipment.

"They used their material technologies, printing technologies, and their calculations and big brains to help out, basically," says Shaggy. "To get it even lighter and more efficient."

What the RBD1 became is a flying camera able to hit 220mph. It can accelerate to 60mph in under two seconds, then takes just another two to reach 185mph.

In a test at the Millbrook proving ground attended by Autosport, an older version of the drone beat an RB8 driven by Coulthard in a 0.5-mile drag race.

The RBD1's battery life at full power is just three minutes - DDG says a typical consumer drone's battery is around 30 minutes, while normal FPV drones have power for around six.

Its top load from across acceleration and turning is 6G, but on average 2-3G is acting upon it at any one time. Slowing for turns such as the 18 Silverstone twists is tricky because the drone doesn't have any brakes – it just stops accelerating and slows in the air.

Red Bull Drone 1

Red Bull Drone 1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

This means Shaggy has to anticipate when the F1 drivers are braking, something made harder by the different lines and stopping points Verstappen was using in the RB20's soaking shakedown.

On a lap chasing an F1 car, the RBD1 is supported by another drone flying higher that relay signals to keep everything working.

"For doing a full lap around the track, you don't have direct signal, so then we have the relay drone to do both the video signal and the control signal – they go through that drone," explains Shaggy.

"It's up high, it has an overview of all the track, it has line of sight with the drone. That's the only way we could get it to work reliably."

What this very much isn't, however, is anything like a replication of previous eras of F1 broadcasting. If anything, as Shaggy notes, it's "certainly more like you get a third-person view of the car, as if you're playing it as a third-person camera in a race game".

Put this to Coulthard, and he replies: "I hear you, but the reality of it is something that changes [established norms].

"I watched the whole build-up to 'Mission Impossible 7' and that stunt that Tom Cruise, who's driven a Red Bull in the past, did where he was jumping off a motorbike and it was so CGI'd, it spoiled the stunt in many ways.

"So, this isn't CGI, it isn't a video game: it's real. And if it looks kind of like that, it just shows how far video games have come. But this is reality."

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing and the Red Bull Drone 1 piloted by Ralph Hogenbrik, Shaggy FPV

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing and the Red Bull Drone 1 piloted by Ralph Hogenbrik, Shaggy FPV

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

The obvious follow-up to yet another Red Bull marketing smash hit is what this might mean for future F1 broadcasting at race events.

Videos using the RBD1's F1 car-chasing footage have been viewed nearly 16 million times at the time of writing on Red Bull's main TikTok channel, with the main video topping 5 million views on its YouTube page.

The championship trialled filming action with drones at the 2021 Austrian GP and more famously in the 2022 Spanish and US races, but these did not follow the cars on track. One reason F1 is yet to incorporate more drone footage into its broadcast is because previously no drones could keep up with the cars.

But, even though Red Bull and DDG have now proved that is possible, it doesn't mean the RBD1 will be used at race events any time soon.

After all, Shaggy had to be wary of getting too close to the Red Bull cars when filming at Silverstone to avoid the drone getting knocked off course by the air wake F1 machines generate and there were the track's various bridges to fly over.

It also doesn't bear thinking about what could happen if a rapid drone were to somehow end up in a crowd at a sold-out F1 venue or if the technology failed, fell and struck and F1 car or driver.

But new ground is clearly being made, and the results are impressive.

"We have no idea where we're actually going to go from here," concludes Shaggy. "But of course the goal is to have some livestream capabilities in an actual race or free practice or whatever.

"To combine this with a Formula 1 circuit in some kind of way. Because it's specifically built to do that."

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