There’s a fine art to using a drone at sea – Terysa Vanderloo explains how to avoid crashing yours into the ocean
With the advent of small, affordable and user-friendly drones, many cruising sailors have adopted them as a way of achieving really impressive and professional-looking photographs and video.
I speak from experience when I say this is far easier said than done, and flying a drone while under sail is a challenging task. However, there are proven techniques and tricks for flying a drone while under way – without it ending up in the drink. I spoke to three drone-piloting experts for their advice.
Andy Schell and his wife Mia run 59° North Sailing, which offers adventure sailing charters on their Swan 48 and Swan 59. They’re also fantastic photographers. Andy uses the DJI Phantom 4 Pro, which he believes is the best drone for flying from a boat because of the legs it has on its underside, which provide the perfect handles for catching the drone – without the very real fear of getting fingers caught in the propellers.
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My partner Nick and I have the smaller, compact version, the DJI Mavic Pro, which has no legs for landing: I can attest to the nerve-wracking experience of catching it from a moving boat and agree wholeheartedly that the Phantom would be a better option for flying while under way. The advantage of the Mavic is that it’s far smaller and folds up to an even more compact shape – we live on a 38ft monohull, and so stowage space is at a premium.
Brian Trautman, best known as the skipper of SV Delos on the popular YouTube sailing channel, has been flying drones since 2014. Since then, he and his crew have flown many drones in different conditions.
Brian has both the Phantom and Mavic on board Delos and also recommends the Phantom while flying from the boat as it is far easier to catch, as well as being more powerful, which helps in windy conditions. Their Mavic is used primarily for land-based excursions.
Therefore, which drone you choose may come down to whether or not you have the space to store a chunkier model like the DJI Phantom, and whether or not you want a drone that is portable. It’s worth noting that there’s a cost difference between the two: the Phantom is cheaper than the Mavic.
Another model that might be of interest is the DJI Spark, which is even smaller and more compact than the Mavic – not much bigger or heavier than a sunglasses case. Nick and I have successfully flown a Spark from a catamaran in light winds before, although it’s no good for windier days and also doesn’t have 4k capabilities.
I also spoke to Richard Edwards, a professional videographer who was one of the onboard reporters responsible for some of the incredible footage during the last Volvo Ocean Race. He suggests a simple yet ingenious solution to catching a drone such as the Mavic or Spark, which is to glue a light plastic mini tripod to its underside.
Once you’ve purchased your drone, the next step is to get used to flying it. Clearly, practising from land is a wise starting point, so you can get used to how it handles as well as hone your skills for catching it.
Brian starts off by flying the drone in circles around trees or houses. “If you can do a complete 360° flying manually around a stationary object while still keeping a constant distance and the object in frame then that is something to be very proud of,” he advises. “Once you’ve mastered this, then it’s time to try the same thing on a boat – which is much harder.”
After you’ve mastered the basics, Andy suggests flying the drone on a breezy day in manual mode with the collision sensors and ‘return to home’ function turned off, since that’s how you’ll have to do it on the boat. He suggests: “Practice launching and catching it by hand – someone on the controls, another person on the launch and catch, ideally wearing sunglasses and thin gloves as safety protection.”
The next logical step is to practice flying the drone from the boat while at anchor to get used to the space you’ll be working with. However, at some point, it will be time to put your skills to the test and fly the drone from the boat while under way.
Andy says: “You need two people: a pilot and a catcher. We launch off the stern quarter, opposite the radar pole; that way, all the pilot has to do is fly straight up. The drone will want to hover in place and the boat will just sail away from it safely. Flying it downwind is far easier on battery life. Upwind, the drone can handle about 20 knots, but it’s harder to land on a heel and the battery won’t last as long.”
Richard also flies from the stern. “To launch, have a person hold it above head height off the back of the boat – it’s irrelevant if it’s downwind or upwind. Power up and immediately ascend to keep clear of rigging, and the boat speed should naturally mean it flies away.”
Flying a drone from a catamaran is generally easier as there is more space to launch and catch it and the boat itself is more stable. The trampolines may provide more room than the stern of the boat, but the disadvantage here is that there is still a danger of the drone colliding with the rigging. Again, choose a launch spot where there is clearance and the boat will be moving away from the drone once it’s in the air.
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When it comes time to bring the drone back to the boat and catch it, Richard advises already having a plan in place before taking off (this is also where you find out if you turned off the ‘return to home’ function). “Never land anywhere but at the stern of the boat and come in from behind, never from the side or overhead, otherwise you’ll be disorientated and hit the boat.”
Andy and Mia also catch from the stern. Andy says: “It’s easier to land than you think. “We start coming home at 60% battery. You’ve got to fly it in backwards, because the forward vision sensors will stop it from getting close enough to catch. “Keep the boat sailing straight and bring the drone in. If you need to re-do it, just let go of the controls. The drone will stop and hover, and the boat will safely sail away from it. Then bring it in for another try.”
On a catamaran, the trampolines may look tempting as a catching area, however it’s worth considering Andy and Richard’s advice: the safest option is the stern as the drone will be able to approach from behind, it will be clear of all rigging, and the boat is always moving away from the drone, meaning multiple attempts to catch it can more easily be made.
Brian emphasises how difficult it can be to judge distances between the drone and the boat when both are moving. In fact, Brian usually flies the drone from the dinghy, which deals neatly with the danger of collision with the boat. “Most of the times I’ve crashed the drone have been trying to land while under way. I usually try to avoid this at all costs and prefer to fly from the dinghy. It’s much easier to land without worrying about the rigging.”
For cruising couples who are sailing short-handed this could be a challenge, although Brian and Karin, his wife, have managed it many times when it has just been the two of them on board. “Start simple and focus on simple movements,” Richard advises. “Most of all, have fun, but don’t underestimate the importance of safety and planning.”
Although it’s natural to worry about losing the drone overboard, Andy advises: “You won’t get the amazing shots if you don’t push the limits, so you’ve got to be prepared to lose the drone. If you absolutely cannot afford to lose it, then don’t fly it at sea!”
4k vs 1080?
This refers to the resolution of the image; 4k is actually 3840 x 2160 pixels and 1080 is 1920 x 1080 pixels. 4k is swiftly becoming the industry standard, however if all you want your photos and videos for is your own personal use or to post on social media, 1080 is perfectly fine.
Gimbal or stabilisation software?
Many drones these days will boast either a gimbal or electronic stabilisation. This is especially important for cruisers wanting to take video, however stabilisation will also help produce sharp photographs.