Skycams, weather cams, your window on the world, streamed.

There are quite a few different directions when it comes to sky cams. We’ll start off with PTZ (remote pan, tilt and zoom) cameras, as they offer the most flexibility, and have gained features significantly over the past few years.

Because skycams are generally elevated, it gives the ability to see from many angles, which means a skycam can truly take advantage of a PTZ camera. There are several key aspects to look for when picking out skycams. These are not necessarily in any order.

  • Manufacture-suggested equipment use cases. Picking out a camera that is designed for close surveillance will not yield a good result when using the camera for an overall landscape or city park. Does the unit work in an enclosure and can it handle Iowa’s temperature swings and inclement weather?
  • Optical zoom (digital zooms almost never translate well over broadcast, nor streaming mediums).
  • Connection types (HDMI, SDI, ethernet, USB, NDI, etc.)
  • Power supply (Is the unit powered by a power adapter, or can it be powered through the network connection?)
  • Network Connectivity (Ethernet should always be the first choice for connection, whether it be through IP or NDI). Wireless can be a fall-back, but is not reliable enough for a 24/7/365 stream.
  • Resolution and Frame Rate options. HD is good and should be the base, as platforms are starting to adopt 4K, 6K and 8K). It will also win favor with streaming platforms to showcase their abilities as well. For example, YouTube and Vimeo both promote 4K+ search results over Standard Definition and HD.
  • Sensor Type: A lot of manufactures will tout a given brand, as each have their benefits and drawbacks. Generally, stick with Sony, Canon and Panasonic for the best balance of quality, price and low-light capability.
  • Audio: Most likely, this will not be a major factor, but if audio is important, supplying audio externally from the camera will yield far better results than any included mics can provide. This is especially true in the case of enclosed (domed) cameras.
  • Warranty. Pretty self-explanatory, but a longer warranty is generally a good sign of build quality and manufacturer standing behind a device that needs to run 24/7/365.

But, what about the cost?

Why are some cameras very inexpensive, while others seem very expensive? In many cases, cameras can look similar to their more expensive counterparts, but the quality of the internal components will begin to show within the first year of use. Weather being a major factor, and ease of use can make or break a potentially great solution for the community.

If an image is worth a thousand words, a live view of the community is potentially worth millions, which can potentially translate to investments into the community.

While a $200 camera may seem like a great bargain and would work for an individual, that individual is generally not going to be looking at it, nor operating it 24/7/365. It also is a representation of the community to the world through the internet. A beautiful day that looks like a blurry blue screen will not be compelling to anyone even remotely considering visiting, not to mention relocating to. A good camera and image will be used regularly, be talked about, used for promotion, and will also be a window to the world for those that are not as mobile.

To start the journey, let’s define the goals:

  • Showcase a community, whether it be downtown business, balanced life at a park, or showcasing development, image will be important. So will the surrounding area, angles for which the principle desired location is presented, and also the overall picturesque abilities that might attract media to utilize your stream for newscasts and promotion of the region.
  • That said, a good camera and lens is crucial. But, it also does not have to be a television broadcast camera, either. This is where some PTZ cameras have found a sweet spot. By combining good sensors with good lesnses and making it able to showcase any number of directions, this will probably be the best option for most communities.
  • High or low, where do we go? One of the first questions is the principle view you want to showcase. Is it showing a broad landscape with an expansive sky and rolling hills? Or is the focus a bustling downtown, capturing the dynamics of everyday life? Both of those will have very different setups. For the first, a consideration should be made for using the camera being lower and having an upward-facing image that can capture a wide image. For the latter, a more traditional setup, where the camera has a downward, but more elevated location. One image is more aspirational, while the other capturing the moment in people’s lives.
  • Beyond that, if the traditional vantage point is chosen, picking a location and viewing angle will be very important. An extremely elevated view will showcase a lot of area, but will also make it seem miniature and less realistic. Conversely, in order to avoid the big-brother sentiment towards the skycam, people need to feel a little anonymity, so a balance should be struck that gives people a good view of life in the community, while maintaining a balance with residents’ privacy. The reason this is important at the beginning, as it will help to determine the camera’s components and specs, like zoom, viewing angles (vertical and horizontal); control, power and network availability; and often overlooked, maintenance. These cameras, while great options and made to withstand 24/7 use, will occasionally need servicing like cleaning, checking for loose connections, etc.

Show me the cameras, already!

Solution 1: The Best. Canon CR Series Remote Control Camera Systems

For the community that wants to have the best quality image, look towards Canon’s CR-N300, N500 series, or CR-X500 series. While more expensive, these cameras are unrivaled in image quality, reliability and ease of use. Coupling with their PTZ controller, RC-IP100, it is very easy to control multiple cameras, have set programs, angles, zoom points, etc., this is a truly full-featured, long-term solution that will showcase whatever you want in the community. Warranty is 3 years.

Solution 2: PTZ Optics

PTZ Optics is one of the major players, and supplies cameras to most solutions that are long-term, mission critical, or specialized. They offer built-in rtsp streaming, though there are many other options to stream beyond the built-in methods. One reason to consider external streaming solutions is for inclusion of branding, information, or controlling which camera is being streamed. We’ll go over that aspect a little later on.

Great quality, great capability, but a bit more affordable. PTZ Optics PT30X-NDI

PTZ Optics makes great PTZ cameras, and until recently focused solely on that pursuit. The camera above has a 30x optical zoom, support for every type of connection, can be powered, controlled, managed and streamed over a single network cable. Its NDI capability brings a new, highly-scalable and reliable streaming protocol that will allow centralized management and abilities of intermixing other cameras, video sources and multimedia content. Warranty is 5 Years.

The PT20X-NDI-ZCAM could offer either an additional view, or primary view, but with a fixed direction. While less expensive, it boasts may of the same qualities, but from a fixed angle solution. Both have NDI, but the latter would require separate power and control cabling, as the ZCAM does not offer PoE.

PTZ Optics offers a few controller options, but the two that would work best in this case would be the SuperJoy or the PT-Joy-G4. The SuperJoy offers program management, greater control and smooth levels of movement than the Joy-G4.

There are numerous other solutions out there, but these are ones that we have used, are widely accepted as leaders, and in general have a good fit for Rock Rapids. We can further explore more options, if you wish, but we would highly recommend those listed here.

Step 2: Enclosures. Making it Iowa-proof.

In order to house the PTZ Optics cameras, PTZO highly recommends DOTWorkz camera housings. They are highly reliable, made in the US, and are setup to handle nearly anything the camera would ever experience. The one recommended for the first choice of PTZO Cameras is the D3 CD HB. Not very compelling product name, but it has the full feature set in order to survive Iowa’s weather, including heating and cooling. This will maximize the longevity of any camera subjected to the elements like a skycam.

Step 3: Connecting the pieces and getting wired for live action.

Will this be mounted to a light pole, or a building, or a tree, 500 yards from the nearest outlet? These factors will be the basis for getting up and running.

Light poles are the most economical, efficient and reliable, as they are standardized, generally have at least power to them, but increasingly, they carry communications, which could potentially service the unit with power and connectivity. If using a DOTWorkz dome and PTZ Optics camera, you may only need to have power and network running to the dome. If there is no access to the internet, you may have to additionally source and secure wired or wireless access to that pole. We can provide potential solutions for this, if you would like.

Wired for Video, but how do we broadcast to the people?

Step 4: Master Control. Bringing it all together to the best presentation of your community to the world.

Here is where we need to determine what you are streaming. Will this be a single camera, streamed to the world, as in “what you see is what you got?”

If so, then the camera can provide the basic controls to stream to many popular platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo.

If, however, you would like to have a little more polished look, say with community branding, there are a few tools to consider adding to the solution. While the camera has very basic streaming capabilities, the ability to add overlays (lower-thirds, titles, etc.) is something best done with more dedicated systems.

For the most versatility and ease of use, we would recommend Black Magic Design’s ATEM Mini Pro ISO. Alternatively, the BlackMagic Design Web Presenter 4K would also do the heavy lifting (sans a few features).

So, what is this Black Magic ATEM thingie, and why do we need to add something else to complicate things? The ATEM is a video switcher, albeit with a bad name. It allows multiple streams (4) of video, audio, photos and other media to be seamlessly mixed together into one cohesive stream, much like a television station or YouTube channel would do. This allows your stream to have branding, multiple points of view, other timely information and a whole lot more. The ISO version also gives you the ability to simultaneously save the individual source’s audio and video to a USB storage device.

Note: While you may not have more than one camera today, you may encounter opportunities to use that switcher to mix together live events when you might have more than a single video source. So, to start with a more flexible system will give you options for those opportunities down the road to give your streams a far greater impact.

The Web Presenter 4K is similar, in that it does the heavy lifting of streaming, and can provide limited overlays, but lack the ability to have more than the single source of video, in this case your skycam.

Both the ATEM Mini Pro ISO and Web Presenter 4K offer the ability to use the output to broadcast to a local cable channel, so your skycam can have multiple broadcast methods, if you choose.

Step 5: Picking the Platform, or platforms. YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, oh my?

As of late 2021, YouTube and Facebook are the dominant platforms for streaming community-related content. Other platforms like Vimeo and Twitch bring different audiences, but it is best to start with the basics and develop a following, first.

We recommend starting with YouTube, as you start with a blank channel (in most cases) and can experiment until you find your broadcast style, without being fodder for comment and criticism from the community at-large.

YouTube Creator studio only requires that you have a Google Account, in most cases that is a Gmail account (for single-sign-on purposes). Once you have that, you can setup a new channel for your community. You will find lots of guides, and YouTube’s Creator Studio makes it pretty easy to get started. The key pieces of information you are going to need are the streaming key, streaming secret, server, and the title and content of your program. YouTube will provide the Streaming Key, Secret and Server. You will then provide that to your camera, ATEM Mini Pro ISO, or the Web Presenter 4k. That information is effectively your credentials in order to stream from that camera (or video switcher), to the YouTube network of millions of servers. Three pieces of information and you have the keys to the world’s biggest media network!

Once those credentials have been entered, you can click on Go Live, and YouTube and your camera or switcher will shake hands and begin to broadcast to the world!