LSU’s band taking drones to the skies for guidance

LSU Tiger Marching Band, be aware: someone is watching you.

And it’s not Big Brother. It’s band Director Roy King, who can see everything happening on the field, even the most miniscule discrepancies in your pregame lineup.

“Fly it a little closer, Moe,” King says to the band’s volunteer videographer, Moe Athmann, who’s standing on the 50-yard line of the practice field, controlling the contraption hovering overhead like a giant mosquito.

“Most people would call it a drone,” Athmann says. “It’s really called a professional video production helicopter.”

This mini, four-propeller helicopter is equipped with a camera that captures real-time action and broadcasts it to the 50-inch flatscreen television installed in the top tier of the five-story conductor’s tower standing alongside the practice field.

King’s eyes are fixed on the television as the drone moves in. And he’s wowed.

Of course, he doesn’t let band members know this, speaking to them in a no-nonsense tone. But in the tower, King can’t conceal his smile.

“See this?” he says, pointing to the screen, where a trumpet player stands maybe an inch too far to the left.

It may not seem like much, but from this perspective, the trumpeter’s stance alters the entire line. It’s what fans would see from the highest altitude in Tiger Stadium.

“I’ve never been able to see practice from this perspective before,” King says, still smiling. “The difference it makes is really unbelievable.”

The drone’s live feed is only the latest in the band’s use of technology in rehearsals. Graduate assistants were equipped with iPads during the 2013 season, allowing them to map out halftime formations on the field.

The Tiger Band isn’t the first to use iPads on the field. Ohio State University’s marching band can claim that milestone.

But LSU is the first to add drones to its rehearsals.

“I came up with the idea last year while watching ‘30 For 30’ on ESPN,” King says. “The show featured a college football team that was using drones during practice to adjust the alignment in its plays. Those words, ‘adjust the alignment,’ piqued my interest.”

The concept was monumental for King, who used paper charts during halftime rehearsals when he marched in the Tiger Band in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

Back then, each chart included the number of steps needed to create formations, and the only person watching from a portable observation tower was then-Director of Bands Frank Wickes. Now King not only gets to hover over the band, his graduate assistants have that privilege, too.

Graduate assistants Kelvin Jones, Michael Billiot and William Novak are eager to show off the results. They not only can catch the bird’s-eye view, they also can freeze it, zero in on the slightly off-step trumpeter and use an index finger to circle him on the touch screen.

“It gives us a whole different vantage point,” Jones says. “We stand on the field, and we would never see this.”

“Music psychologists will tell you that there are different forms of learning,” Novak adds. “There’s auditory learning and visual learning, and when you show this picture to a band member, he learns visually. It puts it in real terms for him, because he can see it.”

But the technology doesn’t stop here. Athmann, who owns Command Cam Productions and volunteers his time to the Tiger Band, also will use a Cinestar 6 aerial production helicopter. It’s bigger — and a little more ominous — with six propellers, and can accommodate the band’s MoVI stabilized camera system.

With the MoVI, the drone can move at any angle while the camera remains in position.

“The MoVI belongs to the band,” King says. “We bought it and the iPads through our athletic budget. The rest of the equipment belongs to Moe.”

King’s eyes return to the big screen.

“When you know someone’s watching you, you become more conscious of what you’re doing,” King explains to the band through his tower microphone. “It really makes a difference.”

He shuts off the microphone

“Look there,” he says, smiling again. “There’s my daughter.”

Her name is Olivia, and she’s a third-year member in the band’s Colorguard. King can’t resist making a quick transformation from band director to teasing dad. He turns on the microphone.

“Olivia,” he barks. “Get in line.”

She throws an indignant glare toward the tower. Her fellow 324 band members react with a collective, “Whoa!”

Yes, Olivia. Someone is always watching.