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Tue 1 May 2007 01:02 PM

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Flying high

While a drama was being played out in the skies at the Red Bull Air Race in Abu Dhabi, a team worked on the ground to keep staff connected and make the race available for broadcast. Digital Studio talks to Thomas Riedel, the man behind Riedel Communications, about the art of keeping people connected at events.

Last month, 250,000 people gathered in Abu Dhabi to watch Hungarian national, Peter Besenyei edge out American pilot, Mike Mangold by 1.03 seconds in the most challenging Red Bull Air Race World Series held so far in the UAE capital. Besenyei maneouvered his aircraft through the gruelling 15-gate racetrack and beat the other participants.

While there was a lot of action up in the skies, a lot of preparation was also being done on the ground to ensure that the race went well, and spectators would not miss any piece of the action.

For this purpose, work began several weeks ahead of the race in Abu Dhabi close to the Marina mall, where a specially trained Air Race team assembled a broadcast and energy station, a five-storey Air Race communications tower, specially built airplane hangars and a fully wired media station. Working on the ground to ensure that all communication and broadcast links worked well throughout the event was a team of experts from Riedel Communications. Riedel was responsible for the entire communications technology including the radio and intercom systems. This included the entire range of radio equipment, for the transmission of video, audio and data.

"Riedel was responsible for handling all of the signals that needed to go from point A to point B - from the compound to the airport, from here [control room] to the VD walls and so on. We stand at the centre of it and monitor all the signals that come to and fro. We also monitor the access to the Web and to the airport and control all the wireless cameras from the control centre," he adds.

All signals would go via the Riedel systems, they would be monitored and broadcast feeds would be sent to the TV production team at SIVision, a Munich-based TV production company. SIVision was responsible for covering the air race for broadcast and production purposes under the supervision of its chief, Imre Sereg.

Sereg has also been responsible for the production and broadcast of the Red Bull Air Race in Abu Dhabi for the previous years. Sereg's biggest challenge has often been the logistics. "Bringing all the hardware - the TV cameras, the VTRs and the rest of the equipment to Abu Dhabi - has been a huge challenge as we come all the way from Munich and we bring everything with us," he says.

19 Sony HD cameras were installed in various parts of the compound to capture the action. In the meantime, five big VD walls and several hundred plasma screens were installed within the air race compound and the Abu Dhabi airport to enable spectators to see close-ups of the pilots as they raced each other in the skies. Signals from the control centre were sent to the airport for return video, VD walls and the flat screens located in various areas in this compound.

"All of the flat screens at the air race received wireless signals. As a result, we didn't have the hassle of cabling and related setups," says Riedel. "To make this possible, we put transmitters in the air, feeding them with programme signals and then, the programme signals were received at each screen," explains Riedel.

Riedel Communications was responsible for the wireless cameras that were installed within each plane. Each plane was fitted with two small cameras and a transmitter. "These transmitters transmit the signal free of any interruptions or breaks down to the earth. This meant that we could get nice shots of the pilot without any interruption," says Riedel.

The signals were sent from the plane and received at the top of the tower. From there, the signals went via fibre optic cable to the main control centre. From here, the feeds were colour corrected before they were sent to the TV production team.

Intercom systems and radio signals have become a significant part of all broadcast production and often, the lines between the two are blurred, says Riedel. "We are specialised in these niche events where wireless radio and fibre optic equipment are required. This is what we do at Formula One, the Asian Games, the Olympics and other such events. At the Red Bull Air Race, there is a fine balance between the wireless video activities and all the links from the planes and helicopters to the plasma screens and VD walls. This is 50% of what we do. The other 50% is the voice communications. That means all the intercom panels -- there are about 100 intercom panels in this area - are connected to each other. Likewise, 500 radios were used for this event. These are digitally encrypted radios so no one outside can listen to these radios."

Within this network, Riedel provides several different channels, all of which are connected to the vendor's intercom system, namely its Artist platform. "Artist has several nodes within the fibre network. We have one node within the broadcast centre, one node in the tower and one node at the airport. All of these nodes are connected. The Artist 1000 series has eight character displays with space for names to be displayed. You just press the button and listen there as all the radios are connected. The intercom and the radios work as one integrated solution."

To emphasise how critically integrated the entire communications network within any event is, Riedel says that if the Artist system breaks down, there will be no air race. "If this system dies, there will be no event because every single command which starts the event, which tells the pilot that he is allowed to start, which gives the information from the TV director to the cameraman and which connects all the work in the background, is co-ordinated by this product. If this stops, you will have chaos," he adds.

Unlike most other companies that emphasise quality, Riedel is also quick to point out that in events like this, quantity is equally important. "Whenever it comes to a speciality like this, where there are a lot of radios and very complex tasks concerning radio communications and fibre optics, we want to cover not just quality but also quantity.

If you look at say, the Olympic games, where there are about 50 venues, you don't just need the best service once, you need it to work well 50 times, and that's why we have become the industry standard," he adds.

The bigger challenge for the company is to ready itself for surprises every year. No event is held in the same way every year. The same goes for the Red Bull Air Race, which had a different race format this year and 14 planes. "This race format is very challenging and therefore, the process of how to handle the equipment for this format differs from what we had last year," explains Riedel.

The company promises to be back again next year for an even bigger Red Bull Air Race that is likely to have a different format from this year's.

Face to Face with Thomas Riedel

When did you start Riedel Communications?

About 20 years ago, when I was 19 years old. I used to do some shows on stage but realised that I was not good enough on stage. So I thought I may as well work behind it. At about 20, I decided that I liked the combination of show business and technology and events more than I did school. When I was 19, I thought let me first start a company and see how it works and let's have some fun. I will study later. Unfortunately or fortunately, today, I have had no time for studying since then. The company has grown rapidly and in that business, we are number one. I am 39 years today.

What did you do initially?

I started with a couple of radios and this is still our core business. I used to supply handheld radios for events. It was meant to co-ordinate parking space and other minor things. But I realised very quickly in 1987 that the events industry was going to boom, especially in Europe. So people needed more communications for these growing events. I was just there at the right time with the right technology.

But what's the connection with broadcast?

At the time I made these radios, broadcasters started telling me - ‘Hey Thomas - your radio's nice but can you connect your radios with our intercom systems - two wire and four wire intercoms?' I knew what telephones were but had no idea what intercoms were. Slowly, I learnt what intercoms systems did in the broadcast sector. That's how we came up with RIFACE, which is an interface connecting intercoms with radios, and this very quickly became the standard in Germany. That's how we became a manufacturer and this was the first step towards intercoms. I also used to work for an American brand for intercoms systems, and we were quite successful. I learnt about their product and felt that we could make the same product but much better. That's how we started our own systems which we introduced to the market in 1998 and in Europe today, this product is the standard and internationally, at all the big events - Sydney Opera House, Broadway musicals, Olympic Games, Academy Awards, Riedel systems are used.

How does that make you feel?

I must say it makes me feel proud. Today, we have a great team of people.

Do you come to the Air Race every year?

We support several hundred events every year so I can't be at all the events. However, I have been to most of the air races. I am very close to the gear, which means if we have a technical problem, I don't send people out to sort out problems. I go there and try to find out what the problem is. I won't say I am the best one, but I try and help whenever there is a need.

What are the challenges you see ahead?

One challenge in every other country is the culture. Our team needed to learn how to interface with other cultures. The Middle East is alright but in Beijing, we had to talk about food and catering for the crew. People are not used to the food somewhere and this is challenging. You also have circumstances such as the heat. In Abu Dhabi, our biggest problem is with the sand.

This is very find sand and it gets into our equipment so we need to put tape in areas between the tiles to ensure that sand does not get into our equipment. These are new things, as in Germany, you don't even think about this.

How many people do you have in your company?

We have about 150 people. This project has about 15 people. You also need to have a network of freelancers in every country. We have this now. You might need someone who speaks Portugese and has experience with events on water. When we need someone like that, we go to our database and find someone so you do need to have a good team of your own but you also need to build an international network.

What is your core product here?

The Artist. If this system dies, there will be no event because every single command which starts an event and connects all the work in the background is co-ordinated by this product. If this stops, you will have chaos.

What is your vision for Riedel moving ahead?

Now, we are focusing on some new areas of technology. Our rental department is focusing on all kinds of radio and wireless video activities. HD video on the planes is the next step for the air races. Right now, the video signals coming from the planes are not HD but SD but in the future, we want to do HD signals. This goes along with the challenge in the company, improving the technology and leading in the technology that we work in.

The second goal is to cover the globe. Last week, we opened our new office in Beijing, and there will be another office in Australia. We want to make our service available in every country in the world.

Will you open an office here?

In different countries, we do it differently. Sometimes, we start our own office. In some areas, we work with partners. Here, we have worked with partners based on a project by project basis.

We are now looking at whether it is better to have our own office here or if we are building a strong relationship with any specific partner. But for the first time this year, we had our own booth at CABSAT and it was very successful. We hope to come back next year.

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