Modern Drones are incredible machines that are capable of doing amazing things in the marine and yachting environment. They can be used to spot schools of fish, locate a mooring or open area in a marina to drop anchor, locate an assigned slip, preview an unspoiled beach or island, locate items or persons that dropped overboard, capture great video and still photos of the boat either at anchor or underway, or even drop safety or other equipment to remote locations.
However, Drones need to he handled differently when used in the terrestrial or land use environments, in addition to specific models that are better suited for the marina and yachting environments.
1: Types and Models of Drones
There are a number of issues that should be considered when selecting a Drone for this environment: DJI and Yuneec make a number of Drones capable of use in this environment. The Splash Drone is waterproof and makes a great Drone for this environment. GoPro and DJI have just introduced small new models that "fold" and fit in small backpacks and are capable of flying for 20+ minutes in 20+ knots of wind!
A: Size – consider how and where you will store your Drone aboard your yacht – on a bunk, in a storage locker, in the cockpit. The Drone should be stored in a safe location where guests and crew will not drop items on the Drone or knock or kick the Drone.
B: Flight Time – consider flight time and battery capability. Small Drones may have less then 10 minutes flight time while bigger Drones fly up to 25 minutes. For casual videos, 10 minutes flight time may be enough, however if you plan to use the Drone to locate schools of fish or remote moorings, then consider purchasing a Drone with longer flight times.
C: Camera- Many Drones come equipped with their own camera, while others are able to make use of external cameras like a Gopro or DSLR. Included cameras range from low resolution with images stored on a memory card while others are capable of 4K resolution (broadcast quality) and relaying live images via WIFI to a smart phone, tablet, or controller LCD screens. External cameras generally offer the owner more options and higher resolutions, but may not be fully integrated with the included controller system.
An example is the Yuneec Typhoon G set up to use the GoPro Hero3 or 4 4K cameras. This is a great set up capable of unusually stable video in most windy conditions. However, while the operator can see what the camera sees on the Typhoon controller LCD screen, the controller is not able to control any of the features of the GoPro camera- and the operator needs to activate the video record button on the GoPro prior to taking off and then can only shut off video recording after the Drone is retrieved. Integrated cameras usually can be controlled from the controller.
D: Ability to handle windy conditions – This is a significant issue that operators need to keep in mind when purchasing a Drone. Many of the small and older Drones, like an older Parrot AR Drone or a newer SYMA X5SW Drone lack many features and do not have the capability to stabilize flight when faced with more then 5-10 knots of wind. Additionally, these Drones do not have stabilized gimbled camera mounts to smooth out the wobble and gyrations in windy conditions. Larger Drones and Drones with better electronic systems and gimbled camera mounts aboard have better high wind video capabilities.
E: Retrievable – many small Drones do not have "home" capability and are difficult to land in any condition. Most new Drones have a highly developed "home" capability and are able to land back to their starting location automatically.
Most, if not all Drones today, utilize GPS. Other Drones use a hand-held or wrist mounted device so the Drone can "home in" on the controller or other device location. Newer Drones incorporate a combination of Optical Recognition and the GPS location of the controller. The latest DJI Drone has a down-looking camera that takes thousands of photos as it takes off and then compares the photos to the landing location. In my opinion, this is fantastic technology if you are using the Drone from a moving yacht or boat!
Another feature that newer Drones incorporate is object collision technology that allows the Drone to "see" and avoid ships sides, radar arches, and other structures that may interfere with the flight or landing.
2. Safe Use of a Drone aboard – A Drone is a robot that uses high powered motors to turn propellers – propellers that are capable of significant harm in the event that the Drone makes contact with the operator or guests aboard. Operators must be aware of who is near the Drone, both taking off and landing. Additionally, operators must avoid hitting radar arches, outriggers, flags, fly bridges and other yacht and ship structures. Operators must be sure to plan how they will use the Drone – from the bow, from the stern, from an open bridge or bridge top.
3. Safe Storage of A Drone Aboard – I highly recommend that a padded soft or hard case be used to transport and store a Drone aboard a yacht, boat or ship. Bringing a Drone aboard a yacht, boat or ship without storage protection is asking for damage to happen.
4. Maintenance of Your Drone While Aboard – Be sure to include a small tool kit with tools for use on a Drone: small pliers and screw drivers, small Allen wench set, spare screws, small wrench set, nuts and propeller locks, propeller removal tool, small pocket knife, zip ties, tape, terminal cleaning spray, silicon spray to protect your Drone from salt water and salt air, etc. A large fresh water spray bottle will be needed to wash off salt water in the event your Drone goes swimming!
Be sure to add spare propellers – lots of them – spare landing feet, spare CHARGED batteries, 12V AND 110V battery, battery connect cables, spare controller batteries and / or controller charger and spare propeller guards.
5. Drone Limits While Piloting a Drone Over Water – The operator MUST be aware of their battery use and flying time of their Drone. Most controllers show the battery charge level of the Drone. At 50% level, I highly recommend that the operator initiate the return process for retrieving the Drone or the Drone may go for a swim! Additionally, the operator should attach a stopwatch to the controller so that the operator is aware of the flight time.
Keep in mind, that while launching the Drone is relatively quick and easy, landing and retrieving the Drone can be very challenging and consume all of the remaining battery capacity.
6. Drone Batteries – most, if not all batteries used for Drones and their controllers are LIPO batteries and are subject to generating a great deal of heat and require very specific charging and storage techniques. LIPO batteries should be transported in special foil packages and definitely not in the Drone. Special chargers are required to charge LIPO batteries. Additionally, it may take up to 2 hours to recharge depleted batteries so the Drone operator should be sure primary and spare batteries are charged when the operator and Drone arrive aboard. The Operator should allow enough time to recharge the batteries after use. Operators should consider purchasing a multi-battery charger.
7. Use of Smart phones and tablets – Operators should practice how to link up the drone to their Smartphone and / or tablets of the Drones controller. Onboard a moving vessel is not the time to get acquainted with how the operators Drone works. It is especially important if the operator is using a GoPro camera since the operator will need to learn the WiFi "pairing" procedure so that the Drone, Controller and GoPro camera communicate.
A Screen Hood is a must have accessory for operating a Drone in bright sunlight! Operators should know how to attach the hood to the device and how to use the touch pad with the hood in place.
Operators should consider adding a lanyard attached to the controller – prevents losing the controller overboard and allows the operator to use both hands to work with the Drone during landing.
8. Use of Propeller Protector Guards – I highly recommend operators make use of propeller guards on their Drone. They are available from most manufacturers or from 3rd party vendors. Most simply snap in place, like the guards for the Yuneec Typhoon G, while others, like the propeller guards for the SYMA series, require very small Phillips head screws and screwdriver for attachment.
Not only will the guards prevent the Drone's propellers from harming guests and crew, but they also aid in avoiding the Drone becoming tangled in sailboat standing and running rigging, fishing boat outriggers, radar arches, radio antennas and domes, navigation lights, and safety rails ! Propeller guards are a MUST HAVE accessory!
9. Drone recover Strategies for Windy Conditions – Drones are difficult, if not impossible to safely land in windy conditions. In most cases, the operator either hits the "home" button and hopes for the best. Another technique is to line up the Drone overhead and "drop the Drone out of the sky" hoping it will land on the deck or cockpit.
An alternative technique is for the operator to "hover" the Drone within the operators reach and then the operator simply grab the landing gear and bring the Drone down. The operator should be sure to wear gloves as the operator could easily get a finger cut from the propellers.
Another technique is to attach a thin weighted line to the Drone so that when the Drone is close, the operator simply grabs the line and "pull down" the Drone.
New Drones include Optical Recognition cameras and software that should have the capability of landing the Drone in very windy conditions and onto a moving yacht or ship.
Keep in mind that in windy conditions or if you are operating on a moving yacht or even a passenger cruise ship, you may need to fly the Drone out in front of the yacht or ship and then let the Drone "drift" back into landing position while slowly bringing the Drone down to the deck. I witnessed a Drone operator attempting to land his Drone on a cruise ship that was moving at 20+ knots. Instead of employing the above technique, the operator panicked because his Drone battery was running low (!!) and attempted to land the Drone by moving the Drone mid-ship and then flying the Drone sideways to land on the upper deck. The operator had absolutely no control trying to run sidewise in 20+ knots of wind and totally destroyed his $ 4,000 drone when is crashed into the steel upper structure of the cruise ship!
Conclusion: Drones are magnificent tools for yachting or marine use, however, operators must be aware of their limits, set up procedures, safety, have the required tools and spare parts aboard to fully enjoy and make us of Drones incredible capabilities.