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This article was published on February 21, 2022

How robots and remote-editing helped photograph the 2022 Winter Olympics

Robots are getting snappier


How robots and remote-editing helped photograph the 2022 Winter Olympics
Thomas Macaulay
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Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW Writer at Neural by TNW

China’s “zero-COVID” policy put the Beijing Winter Olympics under some of the strictest coronavirus protocols in the world.

The Games took place in a “closed-loop” environment comprised of gated “bubble areas” that contained housing, event locations, and transport links.

There were also no tickets sold to the general public, while many media professionals worked from home due to COVID concerns.

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The conditions left Getty Images, the official photo agency for the International Olympic Committee, with reduced support teams on the ground. To tackle the challenges, the team tapped into robotic cameras and remote editing.

This picture taken with a robotic camera shows Chinas Ling Ahi (R) and Chinas Fan Suyuan (L) strategizing around the house during the mixed doubles round robin session 10 game of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games curling competition between Great Britain and China at the National Aquatics Centre in Beijing on February 6, 2022. (Photo by LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA / AFP) (Photo by LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images)
Robotic cameras provided bird’s eye views of the curling event. Credit: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images

Getty mounted cameras in robotic rigs that can be controlled remotely. This enabled the agency to capture images from angles that a human photographer can’t access, such as inside ice hockey nets or underneath ski jumps.

“It’s all controlled via software and a joystick — kind of like playing a video game,” Michael Heiman, Getty Images’ Global Head of Editorial Operations, told TNW.

SHIJINGSHAN, CHINA - FEBRUARY 15: Laurie Blouin of Canada during the Big Air Final on day 11 of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games at the Big Air Shougang on February 15, 2022 in Shijingshan, China (Photo by Iris van den Broek/BSR Agency/Getty Images)
A disused steel mill created a surreal backdrop for the Big Air event. Image: Iris van den Broek/BSR Agency/Getty Images

The robots worked alongside people on the ground.

In a Switzerland vs. Finland ice hockey match, for instance, there were two human photographers, and remote cameras above the Olympics logo, overlooking the goal, and inside the net.

BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 20: Ivan Fedotov #28 of Team ROC stops a shot by Harri Pesonen #82 of Team Finland in the first period during the Men's Ice Hockey Gold Medal match between Team Finland and Team ROC on Day 16 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at National Indoor Stadium on February 20, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Matt Slocum - Pool/Getty Images)
Remote cameras in nets provided close-up views. Credit: Matt Slocum – Pool/Getty Images

Getty has used remote cameras since the 2012 London Olympics, but Heiman said the early systems were slow and clunky:

The speed at which the cameras operate and the preciseness with which you can control them has gotten a lot better. When we did this in 2012 the cameras had Ethernet ports on them, but they didn’t have any kind of intelligence built-in. It was like taking an expensive robotic rig and putting a very expensive camera on it and the two weren’t really meant for each other.

ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA - FEBRUARY 05: A robot coffee maker prepares a beverage at Zhangjiakou train station on February 5, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Getty wasn’t alone in bringing robots to the Games. The machines also helped out with catering and UV disinfection. Image: Carl Court/Getty Images

Another new technology for Beijing 2022 was remote live-editing. Getty’s software transferred photos via FTP over a virtual LAN and onto remote editors around the world.

The total process of sending images from cameras to customers and websites took around 30 seconds.

BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 16: A robot is seen in the National Aquatics Centre during Day 12 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on on February 16, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
Some robots in Beijing reminded people to wear masks. Image: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

One technology that could play a bigger role in future Olympic Games is AI. 

Heiman isn’t 100% comfortable with the tech’s accuracy yet, but expects it to become a useful tool for identifying people in an image.

BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 21: An airport staff member in a hazmat suit works at the Beijing Capital International Airport on February 21, 2022 in Beijing, China. Officials, athletes, and media have started to leave Beijing after the closing ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. (Photo by Annice Lyn/Getty Images)
Staff in hazmat suits were a common sight at the Games. Credit: Annice Lyn/Getty Images

Facial recognition could expedite captioning at some events, while number recognition could be used on athletes whose faces are obscured, such as ice hockey players.

The techniques still require human validation for now, but they could prove useful long after the pandemic ends.

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