Flying a drone over water or from a boat

Being based in the Lake District, we at Hovershotz we are well versed with the challenges of flying drones over water or launching and landing from boats. Over the last 5 years we have flown extensively over different bodies of water – lakes, rivers, estuaries, at sea and of the coastline, conducting all manor of aerial filming and aerial photography.

Drone imaging captured over water in Cumbria allows for rarely seen views of the Lake District. We see aquatic life, shoreline, boats and the spectacle of contrasting elements.  Flying a drone from a boat and over water is especially challenging and requires a great deal of care and pre-consideration if you don’t want to say goodbye to your drone. We have considered a full waterproof drone but we are yet to find one with a camera good enough for our discerning clients, although we are hopefully testing early next year a waterproof cinema grade prototype from Swellpro.

We have been flying over water and from boats since our DJI Pantom 2, in 2013, and in the early days we endured several scares and close calls. We learned from our mistakes and have a few pointers which we hope will help others so that they also learn from our mishaps. Here, at Hovershotz Aerial Photography, we have compiled a list of pointers that will help you mitigate your risks while flying from a boat or over water. Not all of these tips will apply to every flight 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 wet situation where 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.
  • We have found the Inspire 2 drone with its robust lading gear the ideal model to fly from boats, for the reason that you may have to hand-launch and hand-catch the drone one handed. The large legs of the Inspire 2 air-frame make this possible, though not recommended until you have mastered it with plenty of practice.
  • 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.

    Aerial drone photograph of world electric waterspeed water speed record vector jaguar coniston world record hovershotz cumbria lake district battery-powered V20E

    Launching from a yacht 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 “recognise”
  • 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. (this isn’t available obsolete drones such as the Inspire 1.)
  • 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 bad choice here.
  • Always 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. 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 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. 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. It is a lot easier 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 you have no choice 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 and video is possibly the most valuable part of your drone (some of Hovershotz boat footage has sold for more than the price of the drone that shot it).
  • Stay within line of sight. There is nothing more scary than not knowing where your drone is when you are on a boat that is moving. Believe 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.

We hope that these tips will help when flying your drone over water or from a boat.

Author Andy Wills

Andy has been flying and building remote control aircraft for over 30 years and is a licenced UK drone pilot. When not flying drones, Andy serves his local community, as an On Call Firefighter for Cumbria Fire & Rescue Service.

More posts by Andy Wills

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