We know about their use in war zones and for aerial photography, but drones could be used to assist a man overboard or deliver a spare part. Toby Hodges looks at the new types of drone and their uses
Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), made their name through widespread (and controversial) use by military forces over the past two decades. Outside the military, however, a drone’s primary benefit, aerial photography, has meant their popularity has skyrocketed in civilian circles, where they are primarily used for producing film or using the imagery for inspection purposes.
So far it has been for photography that drones have mostly been used in sailing. They have given us a new angle on yachts under sail, the type of close-up aerial footage a helicopter can’t manage – drone footage from the current Volvo Ocean Race has been particularly impressive.
The downsides? Although great for media and high-profile team training, drone photography can be costly, risky and annoying for other sailors in the vicinity.
However, some new quadcopter-type drones are coming onto the market now which may put them more into the mainstream sailor’s focus. These include the first waterproof model, another that flies autonomously to film your every move, and one that can drop a lifesaving device to a casualty in the water.
How drones and water can mix
One of the main problems with drones used for sailing photography is that they don’t mix with water. One mistake or problem at sea and you stand to lose not only the drone, but the camera it’s carrying.
The Lily cam (below) could address this when it launches next year. It is the first throw-and-shoot camera copter available. It’s a frighteningly futuristic-looking device that automatically follows and films its user. And it’s waterproof.
Another new drone to look out for is the Splash Drone. This is sure to be popular with sailing photographers as it will be the first fully waterproof unit, including a waterproof camera-carrying gimbal. And it floats.
In the Splash Drone and Ryptide, we will also see a couple of new types of payload release devices, which are of particular potential benefit to sailors.
Ryptide, for example, enables existing drones to carry a lifering to a swimmer or man overboard. Dutch students from Delft University of Technology, meanwhile, have developed an Ambulance Drone to deliver a defibrillator to the scene of a heart attack. And one of the initial goals of the Splash Drone was to be able to ignite and carry a flare to attract attention.
While a pyrotechnic flare and an aerial robot might not perhaps be the best partners, the benefit of flying an electronic flare is obvious.
Add to that the ability simply to deliver a spare part or cold beer to another yacht, without having to pump up the inflatable and you start to imagine many possibilities.
What are drones used for?
Commercial drones are already used for increasingly varied purposes, from inspecting or surveying roofs, pipelines and building sites, to collecting data from fires or crime scenes.
They were used in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake – as well as bringing devastating images – and the American Red Cross says drones are one of the most promising new technologies for disaster response and relief.
Although drones are already proving valuable in circumstances that are dangerous for relief workers or in search and rescue operations, they are still fragile items and can risk injuring people. A Swiss company is developing the Gimball, which uses a roll-cage to make it the ‘world’s first collision-proof drone’. The Gimball is reportedly easy to fly, can be used close to people and can fly indoors and in confined places (www.flyability.com).
Drones in homes are proving equally popular. It is thought that over a million domestic drones are already in use. Again their primary purpose is photography. Some have built-in cameras, some are designed to carry action cams such as GoPro, and some can carry payloads.
They are controlled using remote joysticks or via mobile devices using wi-fi. The promotional video for the self-flying Lily camera (see below), which shows it following a snowboarder and kayaker automatically, went viral when unveiled in mid-May. Lily arguably opens our eyes to the potential of domestic drones more than any other product thus far.
The future of drones
Understandably, the widespread use of drones has given rise to much debate about the safety of operating these flying robots, particularly around airports and busy airspace. And with the majority being used to shoot video, the subject of privacy is a very real concern.
“If your drone is under 20kg and you’re not using it for commercial reasons, then you still have some rules to follow,” says Matthew Sparkes, technology expert at the Daily Telegraph. “Anyone filming with a drone for their own purposes must avoid flying it within 150m of a congested area and 50m of a person, vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the pilot.”
It is possible to buy a basic drone to fly in your house for £30 from Amazon today, a company that, together with firms such as Google and Domino’s, is trialling the use of drones for delivering parcels. In the US, private commercial drones have to be used during daytime within line of sight of the operator, which currently rules out these delivery drones.
Google and Facebook are also developing solar-powered drones that can fly for years at a time at over 60,000ft above the Earth in a bid to make wireless internet totally global – a frightening thought.
The new drones
This is the world’s first ‘throw and shoot’ camera. Casually chuck it in the air and it will orient itself before following you around for 20 minutes, capturing the most incredible HD aerial footage, all automatically. It looks cool, if a little futuristic.
Lily flies itself and uses GPS and computer vision to track its user. It is compact, waterproof to 1m and fits in a backpack. The drone will follow the wearer of a wrist-mounted tracking device from 5ft-100ft away, up to 50ft in the air. The footage produced by a Lily for the company’s initial promotional video is awesome (viewed over four million times in the first week – see it here).
Lily will fly at up to 25mph and its maker advises its use in less than 15mph wind, so it won’t suit high-speed sailors. But for those interested in getting unique aerial footage of their yacht sailing, their adventures on board or their surroundings, Lily could be just the thing.
It will follow the user, take footage from in front and is capable of slow-motion pictures, at an impressive 1080P, or 360° loop views. Footage is streamed in low resolution and the device can record high-quality sound.
It will always fly above head level – just watch out for the rig. After 18-22 minutes’ flight time, Lily will let you know the battery is dying.
Price US$499 for those who pre-order, so it looks like impressive value. Retail price will be $999 from February 2016. www.lily.camera
This is perhaps the most relevant new drone for sailors and sailing photographers, as it is the first fully waterproof quadcopter – and it floats. It is not only designed to carry a GoPro, but has a payload release feature for carrying and releasing other items, including safety gear.
“You will be able to deploy an emergency flare for 17 to 20 minutes at an altitude of 400ft,” Splash Drone’s founder Alex Rodriguez told us. “This will give you a much better chance of being seen in an emergency situation.”
Rodriguez developed Splash Drone specifically for sailors and watersports enthusiasts. He used Kickstarter crowdfunding with the aim of raising US$17,500 for the first production run. More than $300,000 was actually secured this April from 315 backers, a demonstration of the thirst for this gadgetry in the marine environment.
Like the Lily above, the Splash Drone has autonomous features, including a ‘follow me’ mode, and can return to base at the flick of a switch. It is controlled with a smartphone or a joystick remote controller and it provides a live video feed.
An LED alarm warns when the battery is getting low, before the device automatically lands safely. It comes in a case with radio control, GoPro waterproof housing, gimbal mount and payload release mechanism. Maximum speed is 25mph and flight time 17 minutes.
Price US$1,299. www.urbandrones.com
The aim of Project Ryptide was to find more valuable uses for drones – ie, if a drone can carry a camera, it can carry a lifesaving device. This US high school project has now received funding through Kickstarter to develop lifesaving aids for swimmers caught in rips.
The students from Stamford, Connecticut, developed a drop mechanism to use with a range of drones for deploying an auto-inflating SOLAS-approved lifesaving ring. It is compatible with a variety of existing drones, including the DJI Phantom. Using the radio control, the lifering can be dropped next to a swimmer in distress, to provide 18kg of buoyancy.
The drop mechanism uses the same radio channel that is used to control a camera gimbal on many drones. Together with the two vinyl loops used for carrying the lifering, the system attaches quickly to a drone. Advanced systems have the ability to drop up to four rings.
As the big risk of using a drone at sea is the potentially expensive loss of the equipment, a secondary benefit of the Ryptide device is as a ‘drone preserver’. If a drone goes down, this could prevent it from sinking.
Prices start at $199. www.project-ryptide.com
Tips for choosing and flying a drone
(from those who have paid the price)
Photographer Richard Langdon is on his third Phantom 2 drone after losing two in the sea. The Phantom, by camera drone leaders DJI, is one of the most popular domestic drones available.
At around £750 for the drone and gimbal, plus the GoPro camera on top, that’s a four-figure loss each time. “It’s not a question of if, but when something will go wrong – drones are temperamental,” he says.
Jesús Renedo, also a photographer, agrees, having already lost three, but he puts it down to the ‘cost of learning’: “The last one flew away in a marina full of wi-fi networks – I believe it was due to a breaking up connection with the transmitter because of the networks.”
Marine photographers typically only use drones for video. Types vary from quadcopters costing three figures carrying GoPro cameras to high-end types of £20,000 or more that can take an SLR camera on a gimballed platform.
For good photography drone users need to be able to negate vibration and turbulence, hence pros use stabilised gimbals for the camera. The overriding advice is that practice makes perfect. Doing this at home with a cheap model is best for complete novices.
“They are very easy to fly,” maintains Langdon, “but you have to be very organised with batteries, waterproof cases, etc. And w hen flying in particular you have to be spatially aware – it is very hard to judge mast heights, and easy to hit sails, etc. It takes a lot of practice to know where it is.”
Jesús Renedo agrees: “Practice a lot far away from the water until you know it very well. And assume you are going to lose it – if you are not 100 per cent sure everything is OK, don’t fly it!”
Other drones to consider
Phantom 3 Advanced
This is the latest Phantom model, over 500,000 of which have sold from the largest producer of camera drones, DJI. This latest model takes photography and flying capability to a new level for its price. It includes a 1080P HD 12MP camera, which is integrated on a stabilised gimbal. And you get live HD viewing, up to 1.2 miles away, through the dedicated remote controller.
Price £899. www.dji.com
This looks a good lightweight model to keep aboard, one that bridges the gap between toy and pro camera drone. The Bebop allows you to control it and view the 1080P resolution footage from a tablet or smartphone. It has an emergency landing and return-home feature, but provides only ten minutes of flight time.
Price £429.99. www.parrot.com