Talk about being on stage. I’m lying in at least a foot of fresh powder from the snowstorm overnight, frantically trying to re-attach the ski that went flying when I face-planted. There’s almost no one around, but my every move is being watched, and filmed in HD, by a drone hovering just overhead.
The two people nearby are the drone’s pilot and a visual observer. They can see me both with their naked eyes, and through the drone’s eyes. I’m trying not to be self-conscious as I struggle with the ski. Finally, I stand up, snap my boot into the ski, and victoriously raise my arms above my head.
From well up the slope, I hear one of the men shout, “Yeah, you did it!”
With a flourish, I ski on down the hill, the drone continuing to track, and record, my every move.
Despite the development over the last year or so of multiple drones that offer “follow-me” capabilities in which the aerial device autonomously follows someone, that’s not what’s going on here. No matter how much excitement there is about such functionality, no ski resort in the U.S. is going to allow people to bring their own drones. No, these guys are professionals.
I’m at Homewood Mountain Resort, a small ski area just adjacent to California’s North Lake Tahoe. Here, the lines are short, the lifts are older, and the views of the lake are beyond stunning. And now, Homewood has become one of the first resorts in the U.S. to offer skiers professionally produced footage of their efforts taken by drones.
The service is actually being produced by Cape Productions, a Redwood City, California-based startup led by a former member of Google X. Funded with more than $10 million in venture capital, Cape has developed safety-first technology that helped it secure a first-of-its-kind exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration allowing it unprecedented scope for drone operations at ski resorts and elsewhere, and along with it, the enthusiastic support and partnership of a number of resorts and the American ski industry’s governing body.
Skiing downhill from the top of one of Homewood’s lifts, you suddenly come across red signs warning those passing by, “Drone filming in progress.”
At the top of a run known as “Last Resort,” a Cape customer service rep is waiting, iPad in hand. She locates my name, signs me in, and radios to the operator that I’m there and waiting. After that, she pulls out a GoPro camera on a hand-held gimbal and starts filming me for additional color to include in my personal video.
Before long, we hear a distinctive whine and suddenly, a DJI Inspire 1, a popular prosumer drone, appears and rises above the top of the hill, snow-covered trees and a bright blue sky in the background.
“Drone’s on the rail,” the operator says over the radio. “Release skier.”
And I’m off. Making my way down the Last Resort slope, the drone is with me the whole way, mostly in front and above me. Over the course of several runs I took over two days at Homewood, the drone filmed me from multiple angles, altitudes, and perspectives. In the end, I got a terrific video, edited by Cape, mixing together my runs, including when I fell spectacularly in the deep snow, and topped off with a gorgeous shot of me skiing into the distance with Lake Tahoe magnificent in the background.
About a fifth of the way down Last Resort, Cape has set up an operator’s area where a pilot and a visual observer are stationed along with two Inspires, some camera equipment, and a whole lot of batteries and SD cards.
Known as the “Igloo,” this little dugout in the snow is at the heart of Cape’s operations.
As cofounder and COO Louis Gresham explained to me, Cape has developed technology specifically designed to limit where its drones can fly, all in the name of safety.
“We implement software in the drone that basically locks it to a safe flight path,” Gresham said. “So what’s happening as you go down as a customer is that the pilot is modulating the speed of the drone and re-orienting the camera, but the entire time, the drone is actually locked onto what we call the Cape Rail.”
As Cape signs up more resorts–it currently has deals with Homewood and Squaw Valley in California, as well as a Canadian ski area, and plans to open soon in resorts in Colorado, Utah, Oregon, New Jersey, and Idaho–it is fine-tuning its ability to create its so-called rails. Gresham told me that where it used to take Cape at least a day to set one up, it can now do so in as little as 20 minutes.
“Ski resorts are concerned about drones flying into trees, into people, into chairlifts and power lines,” Gresham said, “and the fact that our approach uses that safe flight path technology is what has enabled us to get partnerships with the resorts.”
The resorts, and their governing body, seem very happy to be on board.
“We’re very excited about technology in general, but specifically about how technology can provide a better experience for our customers,” said Kevin Mitchell, Homewood’s general manager. “We feel that this is a classic case of where technology is far ahead of government regulation. The safety concerns exist, and they’re very real, and we feel that Cape has shown us that they’re pretty thorough with what they have as far as their [safety] operation goes.”
Mitchell noted that one of the things that convinces him Cape’s drone service is safe is that operators fly the drones high above the slope, and quite far from any individual skier.
In my experience, Cape is quite careful. Although I participated in their service in the same way a customer would, I also skied up to the Last Resort run once when they didn’t know I was coming, and I was told I had to stay back from the slope because one of the drones was currently flying. Only after it landed did they let me approach. That left me feeling Cape takes its safety responsibilities quite seriously, even when they don’t know a reporter is paying attention.
That commitment to safety is what helped Cape get the first-of-its-kind FAA exemption, which allows it to fly drones even when someone not material to the operations is within 500 feet, so long as those people are briefed on what’s happening.
“They’re the very first company in the entire ski industry to get approval from the FAA to use drones in any commercial context,” said Dave Byrd, the director of regulatory affairs at the National Ski Areas Association. “They’re charting new waters with this stuff…they really caught this wave at precisely the right time, because there’s tremendous interest by millennials in particular who want to capture so much of their lives on video.”
Byrd said ski areas’ marketing departments have been eager to find ways to use drones to “capture the glorious panoramas of ski resorts” and that Cape is “really carving an entire pathway that the rest of the ski industry is going to be able to build upon for the uses of drones.”
One of the things that made him particularly interested in working with Cape, Byrd noted, was the company’s background: former Google X employees and Silicon Valley technologists, as well as a team steeped in skiing and adventure sports.
Byrd said it’s quite clear that ski areas will ban customers from bringing their own drones, mainly because there’s no way to ensure that users won’t crash them into other skiers, lifts, trees, and so on. More to the point, if there was an accident, there would be major liability issues, as no insurance carrier would cover such incidents.
Cape, however, has managed to secure millions of dollars in insurance for each drone flight, largely because of its commitment to safety, and because it has conducted thousands of drone flights since the company was founded in June 2014.
That sets the company very far apart from anyone else who would want to offer drone services at ski resorts, as well as from developers of follow-me drones who market their devices as being perfect for skiers wanting to capture footage of their days on the slopes.
“I even sent a sharply worded letter to the CEO [of one follow-me drone company] to say, ‘Settle down there, Cowboy,’” Byrd told me, “‘you need to understand that our ski areas are likely going to prohibit drones, and it’s borderline misinformation to say” the drone can be used at ski resorts.
Byrd feels so strongly that Cape is taking the right approach to safety that he brought top executives from the company with him to the FAA for what turned out to be their first meeting with the federal agency.
“For ski areas, I think the FAA wisely realized that we’re in remote locations, far from public infrastructure, and the ski industry is the perfect incubator to test out the use of drones in a smaller part of overall American society,” Byrd said. “The other thing is that ski areas, because of the nature of the sport, are exceptionally well positioned to manage these types of risks [because] we educate the public [about] all manner of risk issues, to limit injuries to the public. And so I think the FAA looked at that and said, ‘Wow, this is a great way for us to get our feet wet, take some baby steps, and allow the uses of drones in American society, and learn from it.’”
Added Byrd, “I certainly promoted that with the FAA and I think that gave them a lot of comfort.”
What helps, of course, is how serious Cape is about make sure it’s using the best technology and the best hardware. Gresham explained that Cape now has a partnership with DJI, the world’s largest maker of consumer drones, because it concluded that the Inspire was “an amazing platform to build off of.”
But before Cape settled on DJI’s drones, it first evaluated a wide range of other options.
“We put a bunch of drones through a battery of performance tests this summer,” Gresham told me. “So we do everything, altitude, precipitation, temperature, [and] speed….The Inspire and several other drones were in the running over the course of the summer, and the Inspire happened to be the one that performed the best on all the vectors.”
When I got to Homewood, I found the Cape folks, and discovered that for the company, technology is not just about making drones fly. It’s also about creating a streamlined customer experience.
Registering for the service takes just a minute or two, and once I was in the system, it was easy for the customer service reps at the top of the mountain to find my record and get me going.
Gresham argues that doing so is no easy task. It’s vital that Cape be able to easily determine who’s skiing and make sure their drone footage–as well as that from the handheld GoPros–be separate from any other customer’s.
In the end, Cape wants its customers, who will pay between $100 and $200 for their video, feel good about the experience and the finished product, which in my case was a one-minute-and-27-second video showcasing moments from each of my runs down Last Resort.
I would have edited it a little differently, though. When I reached the bottom of the slope on my last run, for example, I did a deep bow to the drone, and fully expected that would be in the video. It wasn’t.
Still, Gresham says customers have been very excited to be able to get their hands on such polished footage of their skiing.
“This feels to us, and to a lot of our customers, like the future is here,” Gresham said. “Like, you can just go to a ski resort and, it’s like, ‘Oh, you ski, and a drone takes off and films you?’ That feels like the future.”