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Panthers set sail with device that takes danger out of videoing practice

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The sky was dark and heavy with clouds Tuesday when the Carolina Panthers began another session of offseason workouts, but Mark Hobbs wasn’t worried about any potential threat of wind or lightning.

Hobbs, the team's video director, was safe and secure only a few feet off the ground in front of a control panel under a canopy that looked like it belonged on a boat.

For more than 20 years, Hobbs’ job required him to be about 50 feet off the ground on a hydraulic scissor lift so he could tape practice with a camera.

It got dicey and downright scary when high winds and thunderstorms were in the area.

At times he felt like a lightning rod.

But thanks to new technology made by 8K Solutions out of Titusville, Florida, Hobbs can monitor practice on three mast cams using robotic cameras and joysticks from the comfort of his control panel.

And it will get even more comfortable once what amounts to a captain’s chair he ordered arrives.

“We’ve only had them about a month, but we’re loving them,’’ Hobbs said. “It’s a different way to shoot.’’

A year ago, about 10 NFL teams began using the devices, called mastRcam Mobile, at a cost of $75,000 each for the single-camera device and $101,000 for the dual-camera unit Hobbs used Tuesday.

The Panthers jumped on the bandwagon this year, and now only 8-10 teams don’t use them.

Most of those that do use the technology don’t practice indoors, where it isn’t needed.

“There are teams that want to practice outside no matter what,’’ said Bob White, the vice president of sales and marketing for 8K Solutions. “So when it’s windy or bad conditions … this solves that problem.’’

Safety is the biggest issue. In 2010, a 20-year-old Notre Dame student was killed when high winds blew over the hydraulic scissor lift from which he was filming practice.

Notre Dame initially went to permanently mounted robotic cameras on poles, but that created issues of maintaining the instruments. The mastRcam Mobile solved that issue, because the camera can adjust to any height, like a periscope on a submarine.

The Buffalo Bills were one of the first NFL teams to use the mastRcam, going to it after one of their video personnel had to be taken down from a hydraulic lift by a fire-truck ladder because of a mechanical issue.

“There are many close-call stories,’’ said White, noting two NFL teams that almost had a person fall out of the lift and one team that had a lift catch fire. “So we’ve kind of eliminated all of that.’’

The three devices the Panthers purchased not only are safer, they’re mobile. You can hitch them on the back of a truck and take them to locations such as training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

The devices also allow Hobbs to get better camera angles and transmit the video to the coaches faster. The technology eventually will allow him to send a portion of practice to a coach with a tablet on the field during practice.

“They’ve already asked us when we are getting that feature,’’ Hobbs said with a laugh.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said he already likes the efficiency of the new system.

“One of them has two cameras on it, so you can zoom one of them in and keep the other one out from the wide angle,’’ he said. "I guess the way the technology is set up now, they can do the stuff almost immediately as opposed to taking it back and processing it.

“Now they just send it over, and it’s ready to roll.’’

There have been adjustments for Hobbs, who isn’t into video games the way quarterback Cam Newton and many of the players are.

“Now you have, like, a joystick,’’ he said. “If you’re a gamer, that’s pretty easy. For us older guys, the joystick you’ve got to control the camera with [one hand], and then your left hand you zoom in, zoom out.

“The benefit is, you have a nice color monitor instead of an eye piece.’’

Hobbs’ seat in front of two monitors on an integrated console actually looks like he’s on a boat with a mast. That’s no coincidence.

“When we were playing with the idea, we wanted something that would be able to survive the weather in Buffalo and the weather in Texas. How do we do that?’’ said White, a former NFL offensive lineman with the Dallas Cowboys in the late 1980s. “We thought maybe it’s got to be a boat.

“We were based out of Titusville, so fortunately some of our partners were actually in the boat-building business.’’

Ever since then, the business has set sail.

Said Hobbs, “It’s definitely the wave of the future.’’