The Making Of The Ghost Plane
More than a graphic, the Red Bull Air Race “Ghost Plane” gives fans a gripping view of the action that is absolutely unique to the sport. Producing this exceptional apparition takes both technology and teamwork.
Each Red Bull Air Race pilot flies through the racetrack alone against the clock. Yet since 2015, viewers have thrilled to the sight of World Championship opponents racing wing-to-wing. How? A technological innovation called the Ghost Plane overlays a computer-generated representation of the current leader – a “ghost” raceplane showing the flight path and timing that the pilot executed – onto the live-action run of another competitor in the track. So spectators see two or more raceplanes at once, witnessing every lead change as it happens until one pilot edges out the win.
Vanessa Lorenz, the Head of TV Production and Executive Producer of the live Red Bull Air Race broadcasts, explains the impetus for developing the ghostly graphic. “Of course fans can follow split times, but we wanted to make the sport more relatable. Most people have driven a car or kicked a football, so they can relate to the challenges of those sports, but very few have ever flown a plane,” she says. “Also, the pilots choose different flight lines, so we wanted to give spectators a tool that lets them see where and how the race was won or lost.”
The innovation has been a hit with broadcasters who bring the Red Bull Air Race to audiences around the world. “They recognise that this Ghost Plane technology is state of the art. It’s the cherry on top that adds big value for their viewers,” Lorenz comments. “It builds the suspense!”
Ghost Plane development was especially complex because unlike other motorsports, Air Racing goes vertical. “That’s what makes our setup so unique, the third dimension,” Lorenz notes. The answer was to utilise the technology that captures high-precision GPS data from each raceplane for the judging system: “The Ghost’s soul is the PRU, or Position Reporting Unit,” says Álvaro Paz Navas Modroño, the Sport Technical Manager of the Red Bull Air Race. Holding a black box the size of a thick book, he continues, “This PRU contains a set of 20 sensors and a large piece of software that estimates the position and attitude of the aircraft. It uses a telemetry link to relay the best information possible for the judges and for the creation of the Ghost Virtual Graphic.”
Mounted in the fuselage, the PRU records aircraft performance parameters at rates up to 1,000 times per second; but it takes even more to create the perception that the Ghost Plane and a real plane are in the track together.
“There are also things going on at ground level: the distribution of the data, the synchronisation with the video, and timing laser scans as well as high precision tracking of the movement and zoom of the virtual cameras at the racetrack,” Navas describes. “Although the Ghost was created and is managed by Red Bull Air Race, putting it into the live production is a big team effort including many of the supplier teams that work in the development of the sport.”
One of those suppliers is netventure, which has about 10 people involved with producing the Ghost Plane. “The Ghost Plane doesn’t really have a counterpart in other sports. It shows the full power of the race – giving a feeling of just how fast things are happening, or where a pilot makes a mistake and collects a penalty,” states netventure Managing Director Tom Kopriutz. “And as Red Bull Air Race technical development continues to advance, so does the Ghost. Now we can show even three planes at once, and it keeps getting better.”
The data used for the Ghost Plane is so good that the netventure container is a secure area, because while each race team has access to PRU data from their own raceplane, seeing data from their opponents’ planes would be an especially big advantage. “We have had team members ask us for data from other competitors’ raceplanes, but it’s our job to keep the data secret, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” Kopriutz shares.
A TV screen in each hangar does enable race teams to watch the Ghost Plane in the live broadcast like everyone else around the globe, and pilot Juan Velarde says he appreciates what the technology brings to the sport. “For us as a team, the Ghost Plane is just a visual clue or reference, because to make decisions we have to analyse the exact info we take from the telemetry of our plane,” the Spanish pilot explains. “But from a fan perspective, I think the Ghost Plane is great to give a racing feel. It really helps people to follow the race.”