The Skycam looks as much like a dumbbell stood on end as anything else. On the underside, suspended in a yoke of aircraft-grade aluminum, rests either a video camera or a film camera, depending upon the job at hand. Up top, beneath a lid about the size and shape of a cake cover, is the control pod, home to a vertical-sensing gyro, which senses whether the rig is perfectly upright; a small radio receiver to pick up the cameraman's instructions for the airborne camera; circuit boards to decode these radioed signals; and motors to help perform such camera functions as zoom, tilt, pan, focus, and exposure.
At the precise center of gravity of the rig, on the bar section of the "dumbbell," is a mechanical device that, with help from the gyro, is responsible for keeping the Skycam steady even at speeds of more than 20 miles an hour. The mechanism is a sophisticated version of the device that keeps a ship's compass steady during heavy seas -- two collarlike rings, called gimbals, one pivoting inside the other. The four steel cables that support and fly the rig are attached to the gimbals.
Picture the Skycam above a football field, for instance, looking down on the coin toss prior to the game. From the gimbal rings, the steel cables -- each no thicker than a bootlace but capable of holding hundreds of pounds -- continue gradually upward, angling toward four corners of the stadium, to pulleys attached to light stanchions. On through the pulleys go the cables, and back to the computer-controlled winches that govern them. The placement of the winches and their respective motors varies from stadium to stadium, but ideally, they are at ground level.
The Skycam rig is flown and its camera controlled by a pilot and cameraman seated side-by-side at a console outfitted with two sets of joysticks. When the pilot tugs upward on his elevator joystick, a computer located beneath the console relays his intentions to each of the four computerized winches, causing each to pull in a length of its cable proportional to the force applied to the joystick: The Skycam rises straight up. To fly to the goalpost to the right, say, the pilot moves his steering joystick to the right, causing the two winches on the right to pull in cable and those on the left to let out cable. In seconds, Skycam can be 50 yards downfield. With proper tugging on both joysticks, the flying camera can swoop throughout all but the extreme edges of the space defined by the pulley placements.