The magic of the Ghost Plane

How technology has brought the Red Bull Air Race closer to the fans

The Ghost Plane

It's not just the race teams in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship that are always marching forward with new technology, the internal teams are always trying to give you, the fan, the best experience possible when watching the ultimate motorsport series in the sky. One of these features is the Ghost Plane.

When the Red Bull Air Race returned in 2014 there was a need to show which pilot was winning in the head to heads, but as two raceplanes are unable fly the track at the same time something from the virtual world had to be invented.

Netventure and other technical providers and suppliers such as Tellumat and Race Time Pro work with the Red Bull Air Race on producing the coverage during a race weekend and also create the graphics used. When Netventure was approached by Red Bull Air Race to create a virtual raceplane, nothing like this had been done before, so the team had to invent a new system. "The Red Bull Air Race wanted a visual way to explain to the fans how the head to head works, and as we are unable to fly two planes in the course at the same time they asked us to invent something to show in a graphical way who is leading and who is behind," said Stefan Meyer, Managing Director of Netventure.

Something like this had never been done before. The closest reference Netventure had was from other sports such as swimming where the broadcasters place the World Record line above the pool so you can see if it is going to be broken. "But it was just a line, there was nothing 3-D so we had to invent something completely new. We needed to make sure the virtual plane was in the exact position, so it's much more advanced than just a line," explained Meyer.

The process began with designers showing what was requested and then Meyer and his team stepped in to develop the technical side of the project. "We needed to be able to collect a lot of data, we needed to know where the plane was flying in 3 dimensions and exactly where the camera was as well.

"We record all this data and when the second pilot in the head to head is flying we replay the position data we recorded from the first plane and draw in the virtual graphics. When everything matches together in the virtual and real world it looks like the two planes are flying against each other," said Meyer.

Netventure has two cameras capable of drawing the Ghost Plane, they are normal broadcast quality but equipped with additional sensors. If you put a camera on a crane, it moves around (that's why many people don't dare to go up there. They don't like moving around 80m up in the air). And of course this creates a challenge for Netventure to invent the technology so the virtual plane sticks to a particular point even if the camera is shaking around. "These sensors allow us to know exactly where the camera is and where it is pointing, so we can accurately align the graphics with the second raceplane – this means that even if the camera operator pans the virtual plane will continue to fly in the correct position," explained Meyer.

The readings come from very accurate GPS sensors. As the plane moves around the GPS sensor can lose sight of the satellite and in those moments we have an inertia system to give information on where the plane is flying. As the plane is moving fast and covering a lot of distance it's easy to collect how much they are moving. The cameras only move slightly so they need to be calibrated and checked more regularly. To ensure the Ghost Plane works accurately the team has to calibrate the cameras every day. To initialise the inertia system on the camera takes two hours. "This is because the camera moves only slightly and very slowly, the plane system does not take long to calibrate as it moves quicker and easier to find. The camera needs the more accurate calibration as the movements are tiny, where as the plane is moving great distances," said Meyer.

The team began working on the Ghost Plane project in 2014, and was first able to start using it during the 2015 season. The quality of the Ghost Plane seen today is the achievement of all departments working very closely together. Tom Kopriutz is Netventure's Team Captain for the Red Bull Air Race said that when they first saw the graphics overlaid on the screen the team was "speechless."

"It looked so good on screen, and even though it's now used at every race it's still a developing project. We're planning to add more elements and features, so it will always be improving," concluded Kopriutz. 

The Ghost Plane in action