I Am Robot: The Story Behind Rolex’s First Drone

The Rolex drone flies high over the stadium during show jumping. Photo by Jenni Autry. The Rolex drone flies high over the stadium during show jumping. Photo by Jenni Autry.

I spotted it chilling beside the Head of the Lake during Rolex show jumping, hovering a few feet above the ground like a flying saucer and buzzing like a swarm of bees. A few passers-by stopped to gawk: What IS that thing?

It was, in fact, a drone — the first one of its kind ever employed by the event. Its mission: to capture four-star eventing footage from a perspective we’ve never seen before.

For those of you who aren’t from the future, the sort of drone we’re talking about is, at its most basic level, a high-tech, ultra-evolved descendent of the remote-controlled model planes or RC helicopters of yesteryear. They pack GPS systems and high-definition cameras, and can fly fast enough to keep pace with a galloping horse.

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The marriage of drones and high-speed action sports is a no-brainer. From filming NFL football practices to providing a bird’s eye view of insane base-jumpers, their potential applications are limitless. Just yesterday the tech world was buzzing about the release of a new video drone prototype called “Lily” that’s more than a little mind-blowing. Whether you’re skiing down a mountain or whitewater kayaking, you just throw the thing up in the air and it will follow you around, guided by a tracking device on your wrist.


Drones have already surfaced in the eventing world on a handful of occasions. There was Tremaine Cooper’s drone flyover of the Morven Park CIC3* cross-country course, and that time Laine Ashker allowed EN wunderkind Alec Thayer to chase her around a cross-country schooling field with his space-age new toy.

#gosportygoprodrone open field cross country cam! Enjoy!

Posted by Lainey Ashker on Thursday, January 15, 2015

Inviting a drone to America’s biggest three-day eventing party, however, was a bold move. Might it spook the horses? What if it crashed into the crowd?

You needn’t roam far afield on the Internet to stumble across any number of drones-gone-rogue tales. My personal favorite is the one where a drone crash-lands in a field full of horses who just can’t help but investigate the “strange UFO” that landed nearby, and the camera just keeps rolling. From $1,500 gadget to horsey chew toy … it’s pretty hilarious.


Add sports into the mix and and it starts to sound like an accident waiting to happen. Exhibit A: “Triathlete Hit In Head By Falling Drone During Race.” Eventing is dangerous enough without an unpredictable flying object zipping around overhead; as the story warns: “The machines are revolting. Be prepared.”

USEF Director of Communications Leah Oliveto affirms that while drone use in equestrian sports is an exciting new frontier, it faces some unique challenges. “You need a drone that’s good enough to get high up and get quality footage without disrupting the horses,” she says.

Thankfully, Rolex knew someone who had just the drone for the job.

Carr-Hughes Productions, which has produced Rolex broadcasts for 14 of the past 15 years, was once again tapped for the 2015 event. Its footage was used for both the USEF Network live stream and NBC’s May 3rd wrap-up of the event.

The company has used drones to shoot aerial views of other equestrian sports like polo and show jumping, and Executive Producer Bob Hughes says he thought the drone would have be a good fit for Rolex. The sticking point: “The biggest part of getting the drone there was getting everyone to agree that it could be there.”

The resistance, once again, stems from those Internet horror stories. Bob laughingly recalls a recent YouTube video he saw of a drone that crashed a wedding, literally: ” The drone goes crazy and bonks them in the face.”


Bob says that the drone they use, however, is way more sophisticated than anything you could purchase off the shelf. “You can go right now and buy one of dozens of types of drones that are being marketed for amateur and commercial use — it’s a whole budding market — but this is a particularly high-end piece of equipment,” he says. “It’s only been out for a month or two.”

To remotely pilot the roughly three-by-three foot aircraft, Carr-Hughes brought in a specialized professional television drone operating service. “We trust them to deliver what we want and deliver it in a safe matter,” Bob says.

What made this drone even more state-of-the-art was its capability to instantaneously relay footage to the USEF live stream. “This was a completely different ball game,” Bob says.”This was the first time in history live drone footage was used in four-star eventing.”

Even with all the pieces in place, there was no guarantee that the drone would get Rolex clearance. “If any one on the ground jury says no, it doesn’t fly,” Bob says. But a cross-country course test run on the Thursday of the event was enough to assuage everyone’s fears. “We flew it for half an hour and they loved it.”

Saturday rolled around and with it some pretty miserable weather, limiting the amount of footage the drone could collect. “It didn’t fly a whole lot that day but we snuck it up and danced it between the raindrops when we could,” Bob says.


Many more spectators caught sight of it on Sunday, doing flyovers of the show jumping. There were mixed reviews of its presence, with some people complaining about the noise. “I don’t think it was just myself and the people around me who were highly annoyed and distracted by the drone during showjumping,” commented one Chronicle of the Horse forum user. “It was almost impossible not to look up when it came buzzing over your head even though after a while you knew what it was.”

Others lavished prais on its contribution to the live stream. Another form user commented, “I loved the drone during cross country when watching it on the computer. It really showed off the width of those tables and how quickly those horses were moving, and how big the crowd was!”

When the top-placed riders were asked about the drone at the final press conference, all said that neither they nor their horses noticed it.

Capturing the interest of everyday television viewers and upping the live stream ante without interrupting spectator experience is a juggling act, but Carr-Hughes seems to be pulling it off.

“The big news for us is that the ratings (for NBC’s May 3 broadcast) were up quite substantially, 28 percent over last year,” Bob says. “And the growth across the show’s audience size grew 33 percent from the beginning to the end of the show, which means people were staying more than they were leaving.”

Numbers carry a lot of weight when it comes to securing, maintaining and, ideally, growing support from the network and advertisers. Bob says NBC’s response to this year’s broadcast was, quote-unquote, “awesome,” which reflects well on both Rolex and equestrian sports in general.

Bob adds that while innovative production — the use of drone technology falling under that umbrella — certainly helps, any sport’s potential for mainstream visibility ultimately hinges on the narratives, personalities and plot twists that draw viewers in.

“The point we constantly emphasize is to have faith in the sport itself,” Bob says. “And the sport of eventing is a great sport, a beautiful sport, a challenging sport … we’re just here to show the fun stuff.”

Go Eventing.