Wave of the Future Print E-mail

A new invention by a Villanova University professor could transform televised sports.

Main Line Today
March 29, 2010

It’s embedded in Ed Dougherty’s DNA. His maternal grandfather—an electrician on the Pennsylvania Railroad—designed and patented a cattle catcher device for trolley cars that automatically slammed on the brakes. Growing up in Overbrook, Dougherty fiddled around with motors, switch relays and vacuum tubes from 1940s radios—so much so that his parents pegged him as a blossoming engineer.

Flash forward 50 years. As a visiting assistant engineering professor at Villanova University, Dougherty offers his pearls of wisdom in a “Technology and Innovation” undergraduate course. He’s also the mad scientist behind the Wavecam, an aerial camera system built to pan, tilt and zoom, all while “flying vertically” across football fields, basketball courts and hockey rinks.

Dougherty's original goal was to take existing aerial robotic technology and make it deployable on a mass basis for use in the broadcast industry. Wavecam made its debut in 2008 with Villanova basketball and Penn State football. It was first installed at Villanova's Pavilion. Then a second system was put into the school's football stadium. Wavecam Media has supplied live HD feeds for Wildcats basketball on ESPN and for football on Comcast SportsNet and the Versus network.

Unlike the Skycam system, Wavecam is a permanent installation. In the fall of 2009, it found its way into the practice football facilities at the University of Alabama and California University of Pennsylvania. And in a major coup, the University of Kansas now has it in its basketball arena.

The company is marketing the technology to NFL franchises and scores of pro and college hockey and basketball teams, even the horse-racing industry. In addition, concert promoters, political candidates' speech sites and even mega-churches are exploring the mobile aerial camera system.

"It's been a difficult environment—every cost is scrutinized," says Wavecam CEO Gary Giegerich. "We've started with a few key accounts and are building from there. Awareness builds desire."

Dougherty is the technology officer and co-founder of Wavecam Media. He was part of the Emmy Award-winning engineering team that invented and built the Skycam in 1984. "The [Wavecam] literally flies around the stadium or arena along thin suspension lines, kind of like a marionette," he says. "It can catch the action from any position and any angle. It's just like sitting in the front row."

The camera system was added to Penn State's indoor practice facility in 2008. It covers both fields with a smooth sweeping motion, capturing things video coordinators couldn't snare from fixed positions. The result: superior views, greater detail and unparalleled perspectives.

"In this profession, it can be an inch between a good play and a bad play," says Tom Bradley, Penn State's defensive coordinator. "The players today are a video generation. We teach so much more off of film than off the blackboard. In the old days, we were 16-millimeter guys. Film was terrible. You couldn't get the shots you wanted."

At Villanova's Pavilion, the Wavecam is set up across the court from the basketball teams' benches, so coaches wouldn't get paranoid about a camera hovering over their time-out huddles.

"The first time I saw the technology, it shocked me," says men's head basketball coach Jay Wright. "We had a great game, and we were able to use that game as a teaching tool. Our players can see an entire press unfold in front of them."

Ed Dougherty began designing the aerial robotic technology for the Wavecam in 2006. Today, this system is in a league of its own.

Since the Wavecam is a permanent fixture, it's available for all events—but sports are the primary target. Combining traditional broadcast shots with multiple, unique aerial views from anywhere in a venue, the technology is on its way to redefining the way sports fans see their favorite competitions.

The cost of the system varies by venue, ranging anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000. Installation takes about a week, as the crew utilizes the facility's existing walls, poles, ceilings and scoreboards. The flip of a switch turns it on. From there, it requires only one or two "pilots," depending on the event.

"It can actually travel up to 20 miles an hour, but we've backed it off so it doesn't startle the spectators," says Dougherty. "It moves at the pace of a fast walk—5 miles an hour. However, we can design a camera that can travel 40 miles per hour for use in horse racing."

The Wavecam can also simplify the production process for streaming video of live events on the Internet, so clients don't have to worry about setting up stationary cameras in the stands. "It was important to make the camera as small as possible," says Dougherty. "Though it's suspended on six cables (Skycam uses four), they're like fishing line made of a high-tech fiber."

With the Wavecam, if you zoom in for a close-up, the cables are nearly invisible—"like a spider [web]," Dougherty says.

Dougherty also designed the idea that makes the big idea work. "We use a Stewart platform," he says. "It has an upper and lower platform connected by six legs that extend and contract, and let the user [tilt and rotate] an object—or, in this case, stably control the camera basically any way you want."

Dougherty handpicks his team of assistants. With Wavecam's office less than 100 yards from the Villanova campus, quite a few are students working on senior engineering projects. Others pursuing an entrepreneurial minor take stabs at new marketing strategies.

Villanova mechanical engineering professor Hashem Ashrafiuon developed computer models of the Wavecam's design. He was able to test the concept before a single part was machined, thanks to a grant from Pennsylvania's Ben Franklin Technology Commercialization Group.

"TGC helped us cement our relationship with Villanova, which had many of the scientific and technical resources we needed," says Dougherty.

As a kid, Dougherty understood his life's path. "I didn't want to be a lawyer or a banker. I wanted to do something that someone had never done before," says Dougherty, who's now 60 and lives in Wayne. "I had dyslexia, so I wasn't into reading. I was good at math and visualizing things. We were the first family on the block who had a television, but my father didn't have a clue how it operated. When the picture went fuzzy, I reached into the guts to fish around for the vacuum tube and I'd replace it."

A 1969 Villanova graduate, Dougherty went on to earn a master's degree from Drexel University and another master's in computer science from 'Nova. In his Wavecam design, he called upon principles he first utilized in engineering flight simulators for the Army and NASA, when he worked for the Franklin Research Center in Eagleville.

Dougherty also designed a tracking device implanted into gray whales that monitored the migratory routes from the Baja California peninsula to the Bering Strait. Other projects included work on smoke detectors, dartboards and a cardiac monitor that identifies an irregular heartbeat before it occurs. He's also worked with robots. "One was an artificial nose," he says. "It was a sniffer used to detect bombs and drugs." After leaving Franklin Research Center, Dougherty partnered with George Simmons to start August Design in 1984. It was sold in 2002 to the company that created the E-ZPass technology. More recently, Dougherty has teamed up with Jamie Hyneman, host of the Discovery Channel's MythBusters, for segments that test the limits of human ingenuity and get to the bottom of urban myths.

Dougherty keeps a notebook packed with ideas. Last fall, his list numbered 66. Forty were more fun-related; the others were concepts he believes could be transformed into solid products. For Dougherty, understanding what makes an idea really great is the first step in the innovation process.

"I take an idea and design it to the point where it works successfully, then hand it off to someone to produce it as a real product and carry it to the marketplace," he says. "As an inventor, my favorite question is: What's next?"

 

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