Robots and the Olympics – A Powerful Photo Combination – Medford News, Weather, Sports, Breaking News


Only a handful of AP photographers are trained in the use of technology

Associated Press photographer David J. Phillip sets up a robotic camera for figure skating ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, January 22, in Beijing. AP Photo

BEIJING — A figure skater framed only by ragged ice stares upward, almost pleading. A goalie sprawled inside a net, defeat written all over his limbs, even with his face obscured.

These Renaissance painting-like images capture the barrage of emotions evoked during the Winter Olympics competition. The key behind them? Robots.

The images don’t read “AP Photo/Robot”, though. Good old-fashioned photography skills and instinct are integral to their making.

The five members of the International Olympic Photo Pool – Reuters, Getty Images, Agence France-Presse, Xinhua and, of course, the Associated Press – are all using robotics to augment their feed offerings.

How do they do it?


The method is barely ten years old – no one was using robotics, at least at the Olympics, until the 2012 Summer Games. -wired forms with an awkward microphone cable have been deployed. After this experience, the first change on the list: understanding how to perform the whole operation through a network connection.

The main man behind the mechanics of the AP is photographer David J. Phillip. Rigs are spending the offseason in Houston, where Phillip is based.

Just before London, Phillip was tasked with designing an underwater camera system – a mission that blew up. He is a diver and is generally interested in DIY, having taught himself programming from scratch.

A system born of necessity just keeps getting better, says Phillip, adding that software change tracking is a “moving target.” Robotics is periodically featured for other special events: this week’s Super Bowl, the World Series, even presidential debates.

Planning for each Olympics usually begins a few years before, but the usual site visit 18 months in advance has had to be replaced by pandemic-induced Zoom conference calls and reviewing patterns. Everything – we are talking about 10 freight containers here – must be dispatched two to three months before the start of the Games. It took so long to get the rigs back from Tokyo, that by the time they arrived in Houston in the fall, it was almost time for them to make the trip back to Asia.


Only a handful of AP photographers are trained in the use of the technology. Photographers Chris Carlson and Jeff Roberson – based in Charlotte, North Carolina and St. Louis, respectively – join Phillip in Houston a week before the equipment is shipped. They help him build the rigs, program them…then dismantle them so they can be shipped.

On the other side, only Phillip is there to witness their return home, slowly unpacking the containers over the course of a week – a contrast that reflects the prolonged preparation and sudden denouement that define the Olympics for athletes, organizers and the media.

While major camera vendors have consultants in Beijing’s closed loop “bubble”, there are no hardware stores along the closed loop. As a result, a duplicate of any component that could break got a ticket to the Olympics. The London lumberjacks even made the trip, just in case. Team A was intact and all those extra pieces were still on the bench, however, more than halfway through the Olympics.

Although AP’s Telemetrics rigs are more nimble than most — each weighs around 26 pounds, standard Sony A1 mirrorless camera included — setting up and taking down the rigs is a matter of pure manual labor. Photographers even have to get a height certification every two years to do so.

There are four farms at Capital Indoor Stadium, which is home to figure skating and short track speed skating. They’re pre-programmed for certain locations – including above the “Kiss & Cry” station – but are maneuverable, providing a glimpse of otherwise isolated waiting areas from eye level. At the Bird’s Nest, four remote-controlled static cameras captured the opening ceremony and remain in place for the closing.


While a photographer is usually dedicated to piloting the operation at the capital’s indoor stadium, hockey photographers shoot and trigger the remote-controlled cameras at the same time. Because these cameras are above the lenses, it’s pretty obvious when to shoot.

The AP brought fewer remote setups to Beijing than in the summer, so the photography team had to pick sports where the technology would “pay the most dividends,” Phillip says. There’s at least $100,000 worth of gear among the rigs. Whatever the cost, he says, “the reward – what we were able to do with it – was worth 10 times over.”

The ability to control cameras from multiple locations was tested in 2016 in Rio. This means that photographers don’t technically need to be on site to take the photos. Roberson filmed a pair skating session from the Main Media Center AP office so he could get to the opening ceremony. But being in the room is definitely preferred, providing a broader perspective.

At Capital Indoor Stadium, Roberson is almost totally thrown – literally. At his post atop the press gallery, there is a control panel on a monitor with the robotics software. A joystick allows you to zoom and take pictures by clicking on a small keyboard. A second monitor with Sony software displays each camera’s view and allows him to adjust camera settings like shutter speed and aperture.

He watches multi-view display, ice cream action and photo editing on his laptop at the same time – a process that oscillates between being balletic and frenetic.

“It’s like playing a video game, and I’m not good at video games,” Roberson joked. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” (The comparison isn’t entirely figurative: At one point, another robot maker wanted $5,000 for a controller, so Phillip figured out how to map it to an old PlayStation 2 joystick instead.)


Roberson estimates that four-fifths of robotically assisted images are unusable. Sometimes, because athletes are so fast, he has to resort to mashing all the buttons on the keyboard at once, producing many shots of nothing but dull, scarred Olympic ice.

Despite the stress, Roberson says he still enjoys it: “When I started doing it, it was like relearning photography.

Phillip says there’s one big thing on his wish list as technology continues to evolve. There’s rotation, tilt, and zoom already, but he’d like to be able to roll to add a fourth axis.

Despite this, there is only one major obstacle in the way of robotics: the Spidercam, a video camera suspended by wires that sags, following the dancers’ every move like an impatient puppy. Sighs Phillip: “It’s always a battle with the Spidercam.”

Mallika Sen, a New York-based AP reporter, is on assignment at the Beijing Olympics. Follow her on Twitter at


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