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Flying Your Drone from a Boat

Drone photographs captured over water are filled with drama and never-before-seen views of the planet around us. We see marine life, shoreline, and the spectacle of contrasting elements.  Flying a drone from a boat is especially challenging and requires a great deal of care and pre-consideration if you don’t want to say goodbye to your DJI investment. 

Stacy and I have flown from boats and kayaks since the original Phantom 1 in early 2013, and

Boat Captain and Drone Operator Coordination
Coordination between crew-members is vital when flying from an ocean vessel where swells and currents may not be obvious.

we endured several scares and close calls. We learned from our mistakes and we want to teach others so that they also learn from our mishaps. Personally, I have lost one drone into the water and it was at least as embarrassing as it was painful. I had to ask my son to retrieve it from 25 feet deep the next day.

Here, at DJI Aerial Photo Academy, we compiled a list of pointers that will help you mitigate your risks while flying from a boat. Not all of these tips will apply to every flight, or every drone, or every type of boat. It is best to at least read these and grasp the reasons behind each tip, in case you find yourself in a sticky situation if your drone begins to act oddly.

Let’s go through the tips point-by-point:

  • Stop the boat before booting up your gear. This allows the electronic sensors in the inertial measurement unit (IMU) to settle down.
  • DJI Phantom drones are the simplest model to fly from boats, for the reason that you may have to hand-launch and hand-catch the drone. The large legs of the Phantom airframe make this possible, though not recommended. (DISCLAIMER: ANY ATTEMPT TO LAUNCH OR CATCH A MULTI-ROTOR DRONE BY HAND MAY CAUSE INJURY OR DEATH. THE AUTHORS DO NOT CONDONE HAND-LAUNCH/HAND-CATCH. WE ACTIVELY DISCOURAGE SUCH METHODS.)
  • Calibrate compass and (IMU) sensors on shore before you board the boat and at each opportunity, you are able to set foot on dry land.
  • Sit down when you fly from a boat.
  • Turn off the visual positioning system (VPS) over water. The motion of the water may cause the drone to act in erratic fashion because the optical and sonic sensors have a difficult time “seeing” or locking in on something fluid.
  • Pre-check airspace in all areas in which the boat will be located. Don’t get out there on the water and unexpectedly find yourself in a no-fly zone. This is easy to forget since you may have an expectation of “freedom” out on the ocean or large lake.
  • Launching from a sailboat is possibly the trickiest maneuver, for you have little control over the speed of the boat. Guy-wires create obstacles in several directions.
Upon landing on the boat, or in the hands of the “catcher,” the drone’s motors will take several seconds longer to shut down than they do on land because the boat is in constant motion and the drone will not “recognize” that it is “on the ground”.
  • Upon landing on the boat, or in the hands of the “catcher,” the drone’s motors will take several seconds longer to shut down than they do on land because the boat is in constant motion and the drone will not “recognize” that it is “on the ground”.
  • Set your home point to Dynamic so that your remote controller is always the return-to-home point rather than the take-off point. The boat will have moved from the take-off point after you have flown a few minutes. (a recent firmware update may have made this feature unavailable on your particular drone.)
  • Toggle Distance Limit to off.
  • Select a custom channel after you check the DJI Go 4 app to determine which frequencies are empty and available. In the DJI Go 4 app, under Main Controller Settings > Advanced Settings > Remote Controller > Signal Lost, you have three options from which to predetermine in the event that you completely lose remote control signal with your drone. These are a) Return-to-Home, b) Landing, and c) Hover.  Hover is likely the best option, but this depends on many variables. Think this through in advance depending on your situation. Landing is most likely a very poor choice in this instance.
  • Sit down when flying from a boat! Communicate with the captain, and use a visual observer when possible.
  • Launch by hand or from your hard drone case or non-metallic table. Boats are often constructed with a lot of metal and this causes compass errors.
    Sit down when flying from a boat! Communicate with the captain, and use a visual observer when possible.

    The way to get rid of the compass error is to lift the drone off the metal or move it away from metal surfaces.

  • Be prepared to hand catch with a glove. Keep a tight-fitting leather garden glove in your drone case. Catching a drone by hand is very dangerous and is the last option for landing. But in boat situations, this may be the only option. Gloves are still not guaranteed to protect your hand from the propellers, but they will help.
  • Be conscious of the direction and the speed of the water current. Many decisions upon take-off and landing will depend on the drift of your boat. The wind is also a factor in the boat’s drift.
  • When hand catching on a small craft, position the boat to drift in a perpendicular fashion to the incoming drone. You will prefer to land or catch the drone as it comes in from the side, lessening the risk of collision with the boat or another person.
Risk mitigation is important before boat-droning. Think everything out in advance.

 

  • Remember this, if nothing else: If you launch any GPS-enabled drone while the boat is moving (even slightly), the drone marks the home position instantly upon takeoff. The drone will stay in its GPS home position while the boat continues to drift. This may cause the properly-operating drone to appear as if it is drifting out of control as the boat moves under it. The drone may accidentally hit a guy-wire, antenna, or worse yet, a person. 
  • Once booted up, throttle up fast and elevate the drone above people and above masts, antennas, etc. The boat is likely drifting and the drone is locked into 3-D space accurately by GPS coordinates. Accidents occur when the moving boat runs into the positioned drone. 
  • Be conscious of waves and swells. As you launch and land on a large body of water, the boat will lift and lower itself in the swells, which may not even be visible with the human eye. This effect may make it appear mistakenly as if the drone is drifting up and down in altitude when it is actually stable and it is the boat itself that is rising and falling.
  • Do store your drone away from the motor or engine room. Electromagnetic energy is emitted near the motor or engine room. This energy may be so severe that it may cause a bad compass error that is difficult to fix. You have no choice in this case but to go back to shore to re-calibrate the compass or IMU sensors.
  • Plan to swap out SD cards every time you swap out batteries. Your card filled with images is possibly the most valuable part of your drone.
    Plan to swap out SD cards every time you swap out batteries. Your card filled with images is possibly the most valuable part of your drone.
  • Stay within line of sight. There is nothing more bun-clenching than not knowing the location of your drone when you are on a boat that is moving. Trust me on this. At the very least, keep the buzzing sound within ear-range.
  • Depending on the boat size, you may want to turn off obstacle avoidance. Do you have a large landing zone, or not? On a small boat, the obstacle avoidance may inhibit your landing techniques or even prohibit you from hand-catching the drone.
  • If you run into your “geo wall,” which you may have set by specifying a maximum flight distance, you will run into trouble as the boat moves from your take-off point past your max distance. The drone will simply hit an invisible wall and will no longer be able to come toward your boat. Reset the home point immediately in the DJI Go 4 app. Better yet is to remember to set your home point to Dynamic prior to take-off.When in Dynamic, the location of your remote controller becomes the home point, and thus, follows you. (Dynamic Home Point does not perform well on the older drones like Phantom 3.)
When launching from a sailboat, launch from the stern far away from the mast and guy-wires. Guy-wires are often unnoticed because they can be thin.
  • When launching from a sailboat, launch from the stern far away from the mast and guy-wires. Guy-wires are often unnoticed because they can be thin.
  • Retrieve your drone at 40% battery. It may take you an unexpected few extra minutes to land the drone. Make this your boat protocol.
  • Many sailboat decks have a V-shaped fiberglass deck. If you plan to land on that deck, think again. There is a good chance that your drone will slide off of that slippery surface right into the water. If you plan to land your drone on a boat deck, use a wet towel as a landing pad.The heavy wet towel will stick to the deck and to the legs of your drone.
DJI Phantom drones are quickly becoming a standard tool in marine research. Photo©Keiki Kohola Project-Research#17845-3
  • Wear safety gear: A hat, garden gloves, and shatterproof eyeglasses and a life jacket. 
  • Notify the captain of the boat of your flight plan and communicate during your drone flight.
  • It is very helpful to the drone operator (to maintain directional orientation) if the captain keeps the boat’s bow pointed toward the direction of the drone as it is in the air.
Notify the captain of the boat of your flight plan and communicate during your drone flight.
  • If your drone is in Beginner Mode then do not fly from a boat.
  • Drones do sink. They sink fast. If your drone comes in contact with salt water, consider it ruined. If your drone takes a plunge into clean fresh water, do the following as quickly as possible:
    1. Remove the battery and place it in a fire-safe container. It is likely to swell and emit some nasty fumes. Your battery is dead, or badly damaged.
    2. Take the propellers off.
    3.  Set the drone in a warm place (the dashboard of your vehicle) until you can get it home.
    4. ASAP wrap it in an old t-shirt or cloth and place the drone in a 5-gallon bucket. Fill the bucket with a 10lb bag of rice so the drone is covered. Leave it there for at least 24 hours. 
    5. In many, or most cases. If the water was clean and the drone was submerged less than 5 minutes, it can work again. Otherwise, there is rice for dinner.
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Authors Randy Jay Braun and Stacy Garlington are co-founders of the DJI Aerial Photo Academy, providing live city-to-city workshops helping attendees to create better aerial drone photographs for work or for play. A current workshop schedule can be found at www.djiphotoacademy.com and on their facebook page.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, face-to-face classes are currently very limited to small groups. We hope to resume full-sized classes in early 2021.

Until then, HECK YEAH, we are teaching the same course (and more) to you as you sit in your LazyBoy chair at home. This is a bargain because you get a full six hours of bite-sized lessons that you can digest whenever you want. Take a look at our online Premium Masterclass.

Download our personal pre-flight checklists for:

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Randy & Stacy are DJI’s only officially authorized aerial photography instructors worldwide.

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