How useful is a pilotage drone to the average sailor? Ali Wood tests the Raymarine Axiom UAV app and Clear Cruise Augmented Reality to find out
Pilotage drone tested: Raymarine UAV
A thick fog hangs over the Solent, enough to veil Osborne House, which is lurking on the shores of the Isles of Wight.
Queen Victoria said it was impossible to imagine a prettier spot, and right now ‘imagine’ is all we can do.
The engine’s on ticker, but there’s a louder noise ringing in my ears.
Dan, the skipper, leans forward and hits ‘circle my boat’ on the MFD.
The buzzing gets louder, and suddenly the video image of the grey sea morphs into a bird’s eye view of a motorcruiser.
It’s us on the flybridge of test boat, Raymariner, a top-heavy collection of scanners, domes and cameras.
Above us is a drone, controlled not by the skipper but Raymarine’s new Axiom UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) app, which is running on the MFD.
Next, Dan keys in a waypoint – just a red channel marker. The drone disappears into the fog and we watch the video screen displaying the water ahead.
‘The technology took a while to work out,’ explains UK sales manager Harry Heasman.
‘The drones normally use their internal GPS to mark home. With our system, they use the boat’s GPS so the home position updates.’
The UAV app is the latest update for Raymarine’s LightHouse 3.6 operating system, and is compatible with the DJI MavicPro drone.
By using the app you can automate a whole load of tasks.
Smart Navigation: From paper charts to augmented reality
Most of us navigate using MFDs, phones and tablets, or even drones. But can electronic backups be a substitute for…
Passage planning: Paper or electric?
We tend to consider paper charts the most reliable means of passage planning, but both electronic and paper options offer…
Autonomous vessel trials are ‘tightly controlled’
With the publication of new voluntary guidance on the use of autonomous ships in UK waters, we speak to the…
‘Reaction to the app has been interesting,’ says Harry. ‘Some skippers dismiss it as a vanity project. Others are really excited. We’re talking to the US Coastguard about integrating it into Search and Rescue.’
The drone app has also proved popular with fisherman as a ‘virtual tuna tower.’
When fitted with a polarised lens, the camera can see gamefish, baitfish, weed lines and more, allowing small boats access to technology previously limited to commercial vessels.
We watch the red channel marker appear on a screen. Not far off is a yacht.
Though it would be tempting to send the drone over and peek inside the cockpit, that would be illegal; any drone capable of undertaking surveillance cannot be flown within 50m of a vessel not under your control.
After 20 minutes the battery needs recharging, and so Dan hits ‘return to boat’.
The drone reappears loudly and descends.
‘Stand back,’ warns his colleague, Aaron, as he extends his arm and catches it with the finesse of falconer.
Back in the cabin, we’re surrounded by a feast of displays in the Axiom family, including Clear Cruise Augmented Reality.
The eight test screens show everything from chartplotters to radar, sonar, thermal imaging and video.
As Dan pilots the boat, I stay down below, mixing and matching applications, overlaying charts with tidal data, AIS and waypoints.
I like how the controls can be adapted for what feels most comfortable – pinch zoom or dial bezel; touch-screen or keyboard.
Both have their advantages depending on the motion of the boat. Raymarine’s screens start at 7in, and go right up to 22in, but you can also use Bluetooth to stream them to a separate display such as a tablet or laptop.
Raymarine engineer Kirsty helps me find my way around the chartplotter overlaid with AIS.
When I’m failing to make sense of it all, she simply hits a button called ‘hide static targets’ and once again I’m looking at something my brain can digest – only moving vessels.
When I’m happy with the screen I create a user profile and save it, like I might on the family PC at home.
On split-screen mode, a red triangle appears on the chartplotter.
Red means ‘danger’; the vessel’s on a collision course.
Thanks to the AIS overlay, I touch the triangle and a drop-down menu reveals it’s a vessel called Red Osprey.
My eyes flick to the right- hand-screen, which is the real-time video stream of our course, with a compass.
It’s like the rolling road feature on a GPS unit, only with real footage.
Now I can see where the actual ferry is. Instinctively, I look out of the window to verify what I can see on screen, but the ferry is just a faint smudge on the horizon.
Through the chartplotter and the augmented reality video, I’ve spotted a vessel that my eyes could barely make out.
I make the ferry a ‘Buddy’ so I can keep an eye on it.
Dan changes course, and the compass header and video image change with it. The triangle is now a safe ‘green’.
The video cameras displaying our course are fixed in one direction.
However, Raymarine is working on a version with slewable cameras so you can get a 360° view of the water.
Whilst the drone was limited by its 20-minute battery life and 50m exclusion from other vessels, I can certainly see the benefit for SAR and fishing applications.
For the average yachtsmen, it’s a fun, exciting thing to have but by no means an essential tool for navigation.
The AR, on the other hand, really proved useful above and beyond simply having a chartplotter overlaid with AIS.
Having a second pair of ‘virtual eyes’ will prove especially handy for the singlehanded sailor.
It’s only when we’ve moored that I notice the thermal imaging radar, another new piece of kit from Raymarine.
Lit up like leopards on a night vision camera, are my colleagues on the pontoon.
It’s not surprising this image reminds me of a David Attenborough documentary; Raymarine’s parent company FLIR has been making thermal imaging cameras for hunters, filmmakers and the military for years.
Whilst covert surveillance might not be high priority for yachtsmen, the advantage of such technology at night and in MOB situations is clear.
It seems there’s no limit to the technology (and acronyms) now available to leisure boaters, from AR and UAV to thermal technology and apps.
But what’s been the singlemost exciting development in the last decade, I wonder?
‘The move from Linux PC systems to Android,’ says Harry. ‘This paved the way for a number of innovations. Originally software had to be developed from the ground up, but now with feedback from boatbuilders and the public we’re able to very quickly integrate third-party apps such as Fair Weather and Seakeeper.’
There’s even Spotify and Netflix on the MFD home-screen. So after a busy day spent plotting and flying drones, you can always drop the hook and binge watch The Crown.
For more details see www.raymarine.co.uk
Enjoyed reading Pilotage drone tested: Raymarine UAV?
A subscription to Yachting Monthly magazine costs around 40% less than the cover price.
Print and digital editions are available through Magazines Direct – where you can also find the latest deals.
YM is packed with information to help you get the most from your time on the water.
- Take your seamanship to the next level with tips, advice and skills from our experts
- Impartial in-depth reviews of the latest yachts and equipment
- Cruising guides to help you reach those dream destinations
Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.