Getting photos of your own boat under sail was difficult until the arrival of affordable drones, now you can fly a drone from a boat and they have far more uses than just this, says James Kenning

You won’t have failed to notice the familiar whine of a drone buzzing over an otherwise peaceful anchorage as these machines become an ever more affordable cruising accessory. Annoying as it may be, a drone is an excellent tool for photographers and video makers to add an extra dimension to capturing their boats while under way in open seas, or at anchor in beautiful settings.

Drones can also be extremely helpful for pilotage when away from well-charted areas; even around the UK there are plenty of spots that look dubious on paper, but are waiting to be explored. A view from above lets you nose your way past rugged outcrops, coral reefs or leads in an ice flow. They’ve even been used for rig checks.

In recent years, the drone market has developed such that there are options to suit all wallets and every level of imaging ambition. Operating a drone from a boat, however, adds several layers of complexity to the standard set of challenges faced by land-based pilots.

If we are to keep ourselves, our boats, and others safe from harm, and to prevent the consignment of our aerial cameras to Davy Jones’s locker, it is vital to choose suitable equipment, understand a drone’s capabilities and technical limitations, develop procedures, and adapt skills to meet the demands of flying a UAV in the marine environment.

While private drone pilots don’t need a licence, if your drone has a camera (it will), then you will need an annual Operator ID from the Civil Aviation Authority for £10.33. You will also need to stay within the drone-flying rules.

A DJI Phantom in flight

Selecting a system

Affordability and capability will likely be the two main considerations of anyone looking to buy a drone system to use aboard. However, even if blessed with the deepest of pockets, don’t be fooled that ‘most expensive’ equates to ‘best option’ – a whole range of factors will determine what is most suitable for any individual.

First and foremost, take time to read and understand the civil aviation regulations, both at home and in any countries that you may wish to fly, as these will impact your buying decision. Drones are categorised by weight; heavier aircraft are more restricted in where they can fly in terms of proximity to people, buildings, or objects, whereas lighter units, though less capable, will have more freedom of use. Also consider size in context of travelling to your boat. Will it fit inside carry-on luggage? It is a brave person who consigns delicate camera equipment to the mercy of airline baggage handlers!

Some may have higher photography ambitions and prioritise the capabilities of larger drones with advanced flight control features, higher quality camera systems, or the ability to fly in higher wind conditions.

Portelet Bay, Jersey – it’s
easy to find clear spots
to anchor from a drone. Photo: Will Bruton

For the more nervous, there are now models on the market that can take off and land in water. While this may seem like the answer to many prayers, consider your MOB retrieval skills and the likelihood of dropping sails in time to stop, return, locate, and recover a small drone in a big sea.

Be honest in your desired and essential criteria in context of how you intend to fly, the quality of imagery you need and the level of financial risk you are prepared to accept.

If available, seriously consider the benefits of a manufacturer’s replacement drone programme. Given the many and significant perils of operating a drone from a boat, an insurance policy could be the best accessory you buy. Similarly, having third party liability insurance is another prudent investment.

A drone controller with a mounted touchscreen tablet, with a live image. Photo: Digital Photographer

Getting started

Do not underestimate the added difficulty if you want to fly a drone from a boat. Drone control skills must be second nature for all elements of a flight profile, as should the know-how to seamlessly change camera settings while airborne.

Be sure to practice and develop skills on dry land clear of people and hazards. Take time to study and fully understand settings within the remote-control unit and how to access these in the system menus. Pay particular attention to ‘return to home’ options should the drone lose signal or run low on battery.

When operating over water, ‘hover’ rather than ‘land’ should be pre-selected before launch. Know how to update the home point and understand if this relates to the last position of the drone or the controller. Consider laminating some cue cards with the most important menu settings or stick combinations for quick reference in times of stress. Rest assured, there will be some!

There are plenty of aerial hazards in a yacht. Photo: James Kenning

The marine environment and hazards to flying

Both boat and location will present dangers impacting safe take-off, flight, and landing. Some challenges are more evident than others – masts and rigging being the most obvious perils to an aircraft. Be aware that some hazards, particularly nearby boats, may change their aspect or relative position in response to wind and tide. The coming and going of vessels will also dictate safe areas.

Remember that wind speeds over water may be greater than those forecast over land and this will influence decisions regarding acceptable windows for flight, especially when using smaller, lighter aircraft. Be aware that flying in higher winds will drain aircraft batteries much faster than any manufacturer-stated performance statistics derived under ‘ideal’ operating conditions. Use flight attitude information in the remote controller to help gauge the level of wind resistance, and monitor battery levels with extra care.

Beware that reflective surfaces can play havoc with aircraft downward vision sensors and that flying over water has the potential to induce erratic vertical movement, especially if hovering close to the surface or when making approaches for recovery. If anchored close to steep-sided topography, ensure that the aircraft has achieved good satellite connection before launch as a weak fix will impact GPS-related flight stability.

James prepares to launch a drone with a lanyard to assist with catching. Photo: James Kenning

Every boat will differ in the extent of hazards it presents to drone operations, but many menaces will be common across most vessels. Masts, rigging, biminis and sprayhoods, safety lines, wind generators, and solar panels are examples of what must be considered when planning the least-risk spot to launch and recover an aircraft.

It is most likely that the launch, and especially the recovery, phase will be achieved most easily by hand rather than from and to the deck. Consider your own stability – even when at anchor, the motion of a gently rocking boat creates a risk of slipping or falling overboard as both hands, and concentration, are focused on controlling the drone.

A pair of strong gloves protects against fast-spinning propellers if trying to catch a drone.

Flying over water for the first time is best done in a sheltered anchorage away from other boats. Photo: James Kenning

Initial flights from a boat

Only when sufficient levels of ability and confidence have been gained from flying the drone on the relative safety of land will it be appropriate to progress to operations afloat. Stick control, menu navigation, and monitoring flight data (especially battery status) should all be instinctive before attempting flights over water.

Begin with short test flights to assess and develop the most suitable processes for launch and recovery while the boat is in her berth or in the calm of a quiet anchorage. If in a marina, ensure there are no local rules prohibiting the use of drones and respect the privacy of other boats and their owners.

If using automated take-off mode from a deck, it is essential to know the launch parameters, especially the height it will ascend to before settling in the hover. Be sure there are no obstacles, such as the boom, sheets or backstay within range above the launch point. Releasing the drone by hand, clear of the hull and rigging, may be the safest option.

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Many drones have pre-programmed manoeuvres to automatically capture a range of interesting video clips. This is an excellent way to acquire cinematic footage while still perfecting drone and camera control. However, these manoeuvres can take the drone far from the launch point, so it is vital to understand how to set limits and boundaries within system menus, and be able to assess the distance of obstacles from your boat, before you use these features. Always keep eyes on the drone during automated flight and be ready to manually intervene if there is any perceived danger.

Although it is relatively simple to return a drone solo and unaided to a stationary boat, now is the time to practice landing with a willing assistant. Before take-off, talk through the entire recovery process, highlighting risks and anticipated difficulties. This must include both boat and drone safety-related hazards. Drones are notoriously challenging to catch, so it is a good idea to devise a means, however Heath-Robinsonesque, to aid the process.

Some equip themselves with a fishing net to catch the drone, others have attached a stick beneath the body of the aircraft to make a handhold. I favour a short lanyard, attached to a rotor arm and weighted with a cork, for the catcher to grab, then run their hand up to the belly of the drone at which point it can be ‘gripped and flipped’ to turn off the motors.

A dramatic drone picture of Volvo Ocean 65 Brunel, 400 miles from Cape Horn in 30-knot winds and 5-6m waves. Photo: Yann Riou / Volvo Ocean Race

How to fly a drone from a boat underway

The goal of many will be to capture action photos of their yacht beating hard against the wind, or to take dynamic video while running gracefully under a colourful cruising chute. Be under no illusion however, operating a drone from a moving boat is an exponential leap in difficulty, especially during the recovery phase. Confidence, skill, planning, and preparation are all key, as is the need to restrict initial practice flights to only the gentlest of breezes.

Before launch, be sure to remove any flight range limits in the settings and programme the drone to hover if signal is lost for any reason. Know instinctively how to update the ‘return to home’ position, and understand whether this relates to the location of the aircraft or the controller.

Assess the weather conditions and check that the aircraft battery is fully charged. Think of what you want to achieve in terms of image capture and plan your flight path relative to the boat. Brief your crew on the plan and assign any roles for both boat handling and drone recovery.

Operating a drone from a moving boat takes a lot of skill and hours of practice. Photo: Jesus Renedo / Volvo Ocean Race

If possible, set the drone to automatically download any footage to the remote-control unit when in flight as, if all goes horribly wrong, you will at least have some dramatic evidence of the aircraft’s final descent into its watery grave.

If possible, launch from the stern. The drone will first establish itself in a stationary position relative to the ground, not the boat, so will appear to disappear behind you. Make sure that no part of the boat will ‘run into’ the hovering aircraft before you gain full flight control.

If available, enable a target tracking mode; this will allow you to concentrate on piloting the drone around the boat without having to worry about slewing the camera onto its subject. If you don’t want images of you staring at your controller, the images may look better if you perch on the companionway steps, where you will be hidden, and more secure.

Err on the side of caution for time spent airborne and aim to begin the recovery phase with at least 50% battery charge remaining… you will very likely need it!

Catching the drone is the trickiest part of the whole process. Photo: James Kenning

Drone recovery

Recovering the drone to the boat is when the real fun begins. Choose a part of the yacht that is most clear of obstructions and where the recovery team can operate safely – often over the windward quarter. Before approach, turn off any collision avoidance sensors as, if active, these will stop the aircraft from getting close enough to grab.

Switching some models into ‘sport’ mode may be a quick way to achieve this without having to delve into complex menu settings. Be aware that most drone software assumes that the aircraft will land on a stationary part of the earth; trying to set down on a moving target may confuse onboard sensors and force the aircraft to automatically abort a descent.

Flying close to waves may also confuse the drone such that vertical control becomes erratic with the aircraft seemingly having a mind of its own over pilot stick commands. Some pilots prefer to turn the aircraft to face away from the boat, then back-in, as this may negate any issues with forward-facing sensors. It may also make left/right stick commands more intuitive if facing toward the drone.

A lanyard made from paracord and a cork. Photo: James Kenning

The crew charged with catching the drone should act decisively but also ensure personal safety, especially in avoiding contact with sharp, fast-spinning propellers. When captured, although stationary relative to the boat, GPS will tell the drone that it is still moving forward. Brief the catcher that the drone will ‘fight’ its containment and try to fly backwards to where it thinks it should hover, so stopping the motors quickly is vital.

However, ‘confused’ software may disable pilot stick commands to shut down the motors as the aircraft thinks it is still in flight. If this happens, turn the drone upside down as this is the safest method to power down the aircraft without risk to drone or fingers.

Make sure you aren’t near airports and flight paths. Photo: Anton Petrus

Rules for drones

The Civil Aviation Authority states that:

  • Anyone over 18 and with a drone over 250g must register with the CAA for both a Flyer ID (five years, free) and an Operator ID (annual, £10.33). The latter will need to be identified on the drone itself.
  • Must be flown no higher than 400 feet (120 metres), and at least 50 metres (in a vertical cylinder) away from people and private property, and 150 metres from congested or crowded areas.
  • You must keep your drone in sight at all times, no more than 500m away.
  • Avoid no-fly zones around airports and prisons.

For drones under 250g

  • For drones under 250g but with a camera, you need just the Operator ID (though a Flyer ID is recommended), and no ID if it doesn’t have a camera.
  • You can fly closer than 50m to people or private property and you can fly over them, but you must not fly a drone over crowds.
  • You must never put people in danger. Even small drones and model aircraft could injure people if you don’t fly them safely.

All the usual considerations for photography apply. Get creative with composition, and don’t forget where the sun is.

How to fly a drone from a boat – top tips

  • Develop flying skills from the safety of land – stick control should be second nature before attempting to fly over water.
  • Take time to identify the least-risky locations on board to launch and recover a drone.
  • Brief any assistants on the drone recovery process before launching the aircraft.
  • Always maintain situational awareness. Beware of moving obstacles or changes in the weather.
  • Train yourself to instinctively know how to actively change aircraft and camera settings within the remote controller menus.
  • ‘Think like a drone’ when trying to recover to a moving boat – the aircraft software tells itself to only land on a ‘static’ part of the earth.
  • Be safe. Operate from a secure place on the boat, keep the aircraft well clear of obstacles. Automatic flight modes may need switching off.
  • Wear gloves to protect your hands when catching the drone.
  • Set the drone to downlink and save video or photographs to the remote-control unit, then all will not be lost if the aircraft crashes and sinks.
  • If available, invest in a manufacturer’s drone replacement programme.
  • Obtain any mandated certification, and fly according to local or national aviation regulations.

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