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How to fly a drone off a moving yacht

Looking for the best sweeping shot, or action-packed video to do your adventures justice? We have all the tips you need to work with a drone from a moving yacht.

By Mike, 21 May 19

Flying a drone from a moving yacht under sail can be daunting and quite costly should it go wrong. However, sometimes, in the pursuit of that perfect shot – and in lieu, a photographer on another boat or in a helicopter being around to take a snap – flying a drone is the only answer.

Over the past few years, drone technology has come along rapidly, making them easier to fly. Yet, flying from a yacht still remains difficult. We’ve had our fair share of experience flying off yachts (check out our video below of the beautiful Theia of London), and occasionally it’s resulted in damaging the yacht we were flying off or us losing a drone into a watery abyss. So, we thought we’d seek professional advice and ask our friends at Maritime Filming UK for a few pointers.

1. Set up your drone

Make sure that your drone is calibrated, your GPS signal is strong, there are no errors showing, and if possible your mobile device has a good phone signal to help with location accuracy. Next, switch off your downward-facing sensors and if possible change your return to home (RTH) settings to “hover”. This is mean that if you lose signal, the drone will hover, rather than trying to return to where you took off from – not helpful when you’re on a moving yacht! Finally, reduce the value to 10% for RTH when the low battery level is reached and turn off RTH altogether when the low battery level is reached.

2. Launching

Things to consider: Rigging – make yourself aware of all rigging, especially the shrouds, backstay, topping lift and guard wires, you don’t want to get caught in them on take off. Wind and wave direction – take a moment to think how the yacht is pitching and what affect this may have on the drone, especially when flying in the recommended ATTI mode (no GPS or sensors on). Briefing – you obviously want to disturb the yacht’s direction and pace as little as possible, but do have a backup plan if everything goes to pot. Can you land on the shore nearby? How long will it take to down sail if it becomes too difficult to land when sailing full tilt?

Once all of this is considered, double-check with the person hand launching for you that they understand what you’re going to do and what is required from them. Then take off on the windward side (as there is less to hit there) and fly away from the boat straight away. Easy.

Alternatively, you can take a leaf out of Team Brunel’s book from the last Volvo Ocean Race!

3. Recovering the drone

For this, we watched a lot of youtube videos of helicopters landing on moving ships. Those guys seem to have this manoeuvre down. Switch your drone into ATTI mode to give you full manual control over the drone. If you have backstays, you’re likely to have the most space on again on the windward side so have someone ready with gloves to catch. Ask the helm to keep as stead a course as possible and try flying your drone alongside the yacht, matching the speed and direction. Once steady, gently move the drone in towards the yacht ready for someone to catch it. Here is our first attempt under spinnaker:

Alternatively, if the waves are too big, the wind too strong and you’re racing on a Volvo 65 try this…

4. Don’t panic!

The most important step is not to be a nervous wreck and panic. Most of the crashes we’ve seen with drones at sea have not been a fault with the drone or smashing into something but are caused by panicking! Many drone pilots panic about battery life and birds causing them to make stupid split-second decisions. If in doubt – like in sailing – let go of the sticks, let it hover and take a breath. Once your heart rate has restored itself, bring your drone home.

Finally, have fun with your drone when sailing – please do send us your footage so we can feature it – but do remember to stay safe, and fly within both the local laws and your own capabilities.

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