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Friday, Oct 24, 2014
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Drones with cameras the latest technology to help golf game

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TAMPA ­— Golf has long looked to technology to improve performance, from the golf cart in the 1930s to cutting-edge sensor gloves that analyze each swing.

Drones are next.

The Eagles Golf Club in Odessa has used the unmanned aerial vehicles to create a virtual course book so players can better understand how to approach each hole before teeing off.

A drone with a video camera attached hovered a few feet off the ground in some places, a few hundred feet in others, to capture the nuances of the course — from the angle of the hills to terrain around the corner of a dogleg. The footage was separated into 36 segments — one for each hole. And a golf pro narrated with advice.

Some of the segments are on the Eagles Golf Club’s YouTube Channel.

“We plan on officially unveiling it in full sometime this fall,” said John Russell, general manager of Eagles Golf Club. “We’ll let players know that they can use their smartphones to pull up YouTube and watch from the course.”

The long-term plan, Russell said, is to develop a virtual course book phone application.

“I’m sure at some point we’ll add features besides just the videos,” he said.

First-time players on a course want some idea of what they’re facing, Marshall said.

Professional golfers, even those on the PGA Tour, get a walk through and a practice round before a competition even if they have played it before. Yet recreational golfers are expected to blindly play a course their first time out.

“This can help level the playing field,” he said. “Now a visiting player would not be at as big a disadvantage as a local. The visitors can even study the videos days or weeks before they play.”

Providing players an advance peek is commonly done now.

Many golf courses have maps or photo books with written advice. So do signs at tee boxes.

Some have posted 3-D, aerial or satellite images online.

But none of those options are as good as what a drone can provide, said Michael Compton of Three Chairs Productions, which worked in conjunction with Pure Infusion marketing company to create the virtual course book for Eagles Golf Club.

Satellite-captured photographs, he explained, must be blown up if the golfer wants a close up.

“It gets grainy,” said Compton. “It looks more like a green blur than a golf course.”

Aerial footage shot from helicopters is inferior and more expensive, Compton added. A helicopter cannot fly as close to the ground without disturbing the course, nor is it as nimble.

“I’ve heard some estimates of over $10,000 to get a helicopter for a day,” said Ryan English of Tampa-based aerial imaging company FlyMotion Media. “And that does not include the camera or the production team or editing or anything else. Drones are so affordable that even the smallest golf course in the smallest town can use one.”

English didn’t work on the Eagles Golf Club job but will be the drone operator for future virtual course books by the production team.

A drone provides the most useful view, Compton said.

“The drone moves in the same path the golfer would, and moving footage is so much better than static,” he said. “You see what the course really does look like. It is the next best thing to being there live. The only thing missing from the video is the feeling of fresh air and sunshine.”

Three Chairs Productions and Pure Infusion have more golf course deals in the works, said Tom Nagy, president of Pure Infusion.

“This is going to be big,” he said. “Every course will want one now that this technology is available and affordable.”

Modern drones first gained public attention with the fixed-wing variety used by the military. Those used for commercial purposes, like English’s, are much smaller and resemble mini-helicopters with multiple rotors. In filmmaking, the more rotors, the steadier and safer the camera will be.

The typical drone used for filming weighs 5 to 17 pounds.

The use of drones for commercial work has been at the center of debate between the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and the federal courts.

The FAA forbids using drones for anything other than hobbyist purposes and is issuing $10,000 fines to any individual or business that uses them to earn money, even though a federal court ruled the agency lacks authority to enforce a fine it levied against a Virginia aerial photographer.

The courts say for now drones can be used for any purpose as long as the operator abides by the regulations put in place by the FAA for model aircraft, such as flying them below 400 feet and keeping the weight of the devices to below 55 pounds.

Congress has given the FAA until September 2015 to come up with federal rules for integrating commercial drones into U.S. airspace.

Until then, the Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission and the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Film Commission will not grant permits for any production to use a drone.

However, because Eagles Golf Club is a privately run golf course, a permit was not needed.

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7604

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