Attack of the Drones: Several North American ski areas partner with video service to permit in-resort use of aerial devices

Attack of the Drones: Several North American ski areas partner with video service to permit in-resort use of aerial devices

Content is king. The evidence: Beginning this winter, several North American resorts will be offering personal drone video services, through partnerships with Cape Productions, to the public. Cape Productions—a brand made up of former Google employees as well as Stanford-educated engineers—will be offering drone packages for about $150, which will include overhead and follow cam footage of three runs, with a professionally edited minute-and-a-half to two-minute video being produced as a result. Customers will then have the edit emailed to them for their social media sharing pleasure.

This is sure to bring about concern from some skiers. The drones are automatically wired to remain a safe height away from the ground and avoid obstacles including trees, chairlifts and busy areas of the mountains—like bats utilizing sonar to dip and dodge through the air in search of juicy insects. Additionally, the drones will only operate on shorter ski trails dubbed “drone zones” to keep them farther from the public eye. However, one can’t help but wonder if, while standing atop a favorite line at the local ski hill this winter, a drone will be hovering above your head as it captures Little Joey weaving intermittently between pizza and french fry.

This is something Cape co-founder and CEO Jason Soll is confident can be prevented. “As you go skiing with the drone, it will follow you as you go down that specific run, but if you go off into the trees, it won’t follow you,” explains Soll. “Frankly, as someone who loves losing himself, literally and figuratively, in the trees where it’s totally silent, I wouldn’t want to prevent that from being possible for skiers. The service is operated on these short runs, and that’s it.”

There’s also the safety issue. Drones, like any technology, can fail. A plummeting drone could do serious physical damage if it hits someone. In a June article on freeskier.com, Sierra-at-Tahoe director of sales and marketing Dave Amirault told FREESKIER, “It’s a safety and density issue. It’s not the most reliable technology. They can fall out of the sky, get lost, hit someone or hit a lift. While amazing, there isn’t a place for them at ski areas.”

Cape does, however, have a solid safety record, which played a huge role in getting them the permit to operate in Canada. Following a testing period with CMH Heli-Skiing in Revelstoke, and “operating well over 1000 missions with the drones without any issues and a perfect safety record, Transport Canada gave us full permission to operate commercially.” Cape also had successful beta testing at Big White Resort and at Momentum Ski Camps in Whistler.

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have jurisdiction over the recreational use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (read: drones) on USFS land, which is where a bunch of Cape’s partner resorts have permits to operate on. Ski areas in the United States have banned drone use by individuals on ski resort property, but Cape Productions has been working with the USFS and the Federal Aviation Administration to achieve the United States’ first commercial drone permit for ski areas.

“We have spent the last couple of months building off of the Section 333 exemption that we’ve already received in order for us to be able to operate in these resort environments,” Soll explains. “It’s something that hasn’t been done before [in the United States] and so we are in the final stages of being able to finalize that.” As soon as that happens, Cape plans to announce launch dates for resorts that the service will be operating at.


Introducing Cape Productions

At $150, the package—which will be offered at Winter Park Resort, Copper Mountain, Timberline Lodge, Mount Hood Meadows, Powder Mountain, Homewood Mountain, Mountain Creek, Fernie and Schweitzer—is certainly geared toward clientele with disposable income. It will be interesting to see if the drones being used, presumably by non-locals, vacationers, tourists, etc., will have any impact on the skiers frequenting the resorts on a more consistent basis. “I suspect there will be some guests, even if Cape is offered on a single run, that will say ‘I don’t want any drones on my beautiful mountain,'” surmises Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association. “But I don’t think that’ll be the case because it’ll be very limited to the drone zone area.”

Cynical apprehensions aside, what can’t be ignored is the demand for personal video production on the ski hill—the hordes of POV camera-toting skiers in lift lines at any resort in the world are evidence of that. And, some of the best video content on the Internet comes from action cameras, produced by some of the best athletes in the world. GoPro even announced that it will be producing a quadcopter drone set to hit the market in 2016. “We recognize that there is this generation of skiers that love being captured on video,” says Byrd. “I think [Cape] is a great kind of middle ground for a lot of ski areas, to allow this video drone service offered up as a concession service to guests, while limiting where it is out on the mountain and still providing an amazing opportunity to catch cool, high-quality video footage for their guests.”

The common issues that come with capturing your own video content—dealing with your camera while out on the hill, making sure it’s turned on, adjusted to the correct settings, adjusting it to the correct angle—are taken care of by Cape. Editing is also a challenge for novice users, but Cape will also handle that. The appeal of having to worry solely about shredding is certainly a pro for this drone service. And, let’s be honest, drones are pretty frickin’ cool; they can capture angles that nothing outside of an actual chopper can.

Getting the drone flight dialed for this winter with @hoose193 ! This thing is sick!! #gopro @gopro #bobculture

A video posted by Bobby Brown (@bobby_brown1) on

Additionally, while the logistics haven’t been completely finalized as to which runs will be drone zones, certain resorts are kicking around the idea of using the service in the terrain park. In that case, there’s certainly the possibility of some interesting content to be produced, especially by the most talented frequenters of the resort. That is, if they can afford it.

In the future, Cape hopes to “deepen [its] relationships with our partner resorts and be able to offer the service to a wider range of customers, by adding it on different runs throughout the resort.” A single run is one thing, but multiple runs is quite another. This could open the door for the drones to intrude upon guest experience at the resort. The success of the drone service remains to be seen.

On the non-content creation end of the spectrum, Winter Park hasn’t ruled out using the drone service for better efficiency in resort operations, such as lift inspection.

What are your opinions on drones at ski areas? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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