The man who started the company 25 years ago is German-born and a one-time magician, Thomas Riedel. One of his most notable achievements was to transform the way F1 teams communicate with their drivers during the race. Riedel talks to Humans Invent about the rise of the company, the challenges they face and the exciting new projects they are working on including Red Bull’s stratosphere base jump.
When I was ten-years-old I started doing magic. I did about 400 shows before I decided I wasn’t good enough to go professional and felt I should work behind the stage – but I fell in love with show business pretty early on. When I left school I started renting out light and sound equipment. I also bought a bunch of radios. I found the radios were on the road all the time and the other equipment was just sitting there so I thought, ‘that seems to be a little niche’. I focused on the radio business and 5 radios became 50, then 500, then 5000 and so on. Today we probably have the largest radio rental fleet in the world with 40,000 radios. Just taking the Olympics for example, we are the supplier for 18,000 digital terminals that are being used by all the officials.
What other events have Riedel been involved with?
We just did the Euros (Euro 2012) in Poland and Ukraine and we also worked on the World Cup in South Africa. We are involved with most of the big events. The radios were only the start. Over the years we have developed several other services in the area of communications and media backbone technology. For example, at the football we also handled all the audio and video signals which basically come together at the broadcast truck and then onto a T.V. programme. Our task is to deliver these signals in real time over a live network.
Our task is to transmit live pictures from the stratosphere, which, as you can imagine, is quite a challenge
Take F1 for example, these days people find it normal that intercom stations with lots of buttons are at the pit stand of every single team but when I got into F1 these systems didn’t exist. Well, they all had very basic communications with just a bunch of radios all talking on one frequency and it was not optimised. I supplied the very first one to McLaren and they initially asked, ‘why do we need all these buttons?’ Today McLaren has many more buttons than this. A couple of years after we started working with them, the team manager said to me, ‘you’ve really changed the way we operate the race’.
Originally, the driver was able to listen and talk but there was a limitation because only one person could talk on a radio channel at a time. So if someone within the team would talk to someone at the pit wall stand, the frequency was blocked. If the driver would push his talk button at the same time he would not get through. When I realised this limitation I mentioned this to the team and said that this could be solved with our intercom together with some changes in the configuration of the radios. The guys felt that it would be quite unlikely that this blocking situation would happen.
Funnily enough exactly this situation came up during the same race weekend and the car could not talk to the pit since the frequency was busy. Because of this, the car could not come in for a pit stop in time and the team lost their chance to win the race. This whole situation opened the eyes of the team regarding the importance of a proper communications system. We set up the first matrix intercom system at a team in Formula 1. Today all teams in F1 use our intercom solution. We have also developed a method for cutting out the noise of the car when the driver is speaking to the pit over the radio with a device that subtracts the noise of the car from the voice by differentiating between the two in real time.
Are you always working on ways of improving communications?
That is the nature of this group of crazy people. We have 350 people, so not a very small company but not a huge company either. There is a good number of people that are incredibly enthusiastic, in that they want to be involved with these events, because at the same time they always want to improve things. When we have worked successfully on an event we are pleased but at the same time we think, ‘how can we do it better?’ We are constantly seeking to develop products. From a business point of view I believe that we need to develop otherwise someone else might overtake at some point. So far, however, in our niche market we have been on the top and that is why we do so many events globally.
When you started this company, did you imagine that it would become what it is today?
No, not at all. The company turns 25 this year so I started when I was 18 and I hadn’t even finished school at the time. I finished school when I was 19, so for about 2 years I had to finish one project (school) which my parents wanted me to finish. I wasn’t really interested in that but I finished it anyway. From that time on I pushed the company and it has been growing and growing ever since. Four years ago, I didn’t expect to be where we are today and this is a rather strange feeling thinking of where we will be in four years time considering our rate of growth.
A couple of years after we started working with them, the team manager said to me, ‘you’ve really changed the way we operate the race’
Red Bull has a project going on which is called the Red Bull Stratos, where Felix Baumgartner will do a base jump from a capsule 34km high in the stratosphere. This will probably happen in the next couple of months and our task is to transmit live pictures from the stratosphere, which, as you can imagine, is quite a challenge. I mean, doing something with signals in the stratosphere is just crazy. I’m excited, what the next project will be – maybe something in space; Red Bull on the moon or something like that.