Technical & Equipment from Ocean Sailor Magazine

Droning On

Droning On

The most stunning pictures of your boat will be taken from a drone. Photographer Trystan Grace tells us how.

Many people tell me that flying a drone for the first time over water is very daunting, but I maintain that learning to fly over water is simple, if you are completely familiar with the controls of the drone and the limitations flying over water imposes. You need to be as vigilant over the water as you do over the land. Start flying over land first, then move up to flying around the yacht at anchor, next try it out under motor, then you’re ready to go for it under sail.

The elements that take time to master are advanced manoeuvres and smooth flying, which in turn allows you to take the best cinematic video footage. As with anything, the key to success is practice and the best place to start is on a nice clear still day in a wide open area.

I expect many of our readers would love to, or already do, take a drone with them when they go cruising. As I look back at some of my earliest footage, I remember the lessons I have learnt along the way. I hope this article will help to get you started and to make the most of your drone when afloat.

I’m happy to answer any questions you may have, if so please email me at:

hello@oceansailormagazine.com


What Drone?

With the rise of the consumer drone, there are many choices and each one has different features and camera qualities. The market leader is undoubtedly DJI and I have been using their products, not just drones, for about six years. Their gimbal technology is excellent and now they have acquired Hasselblad, they have seriously stepped up their camera quality.

I always ask students what their purpose is for purchasing a drone:

For Beginners:

I recommend the Ryze Tello Edu Drone or DJI Spark, both are less expensive options but they still have many of the features you will find on higher grade drones. It is also a good idea to get a very small, very cheap toy drone to acquaint yourself with the controls.

Small & Easy To Carry:

The Mavic series is the best choice with their small form factor and folding rotor arms which allows it to be packed in a bag easily. The Mavic Mini, Mavic Air 2 and the most powerful Mavic Pro 2, each have varying degrees of features and the price to match.

Enthusiast / professional:

My personal choice is the Phantom 4 Pro. It is an excellent workhorse and with its iconic skids, it is a far easier option to catch off the deck of a moving boat and works well in heavier weather. I use this in a professional capacity, a Mavic could be a better choice if you would like to use the drone in multiple situations. Just consider the Mavic will be harder to catch and will not be as competent in windy conditions.


Settings

There are a few settings to look at before you start flying: One of the most important settings to turn off for yacht photography, is the maximum distance setting which will not allow the drone to fly past a set distance from the take-off point. Most modern drones do have an ‘emergency’ return to home button which will automatically activate when the battery is low or the signal is lost. This is redundant when sailing since after takeoff on a yacht, the ‘return to home’ GPS position then disappears over the horizon behind you.

You will also need to turn off obstacle avoidance. Flying the drone off a yacht with rigging, sails and lines, can confuse the drone’s avoidance systems and disrupt your approach. The downward sensors also can get quite confused when flying over rough water, so it is best to turn it off too. Remember with these settings turned off, you do not have the safeguard of the sensors, so you should be comfortable before you do this. You should never be reliant on drone sensors, instead, avoid obstacles through good flying and observation.

Tip: You can set a custom low battery warning and ‘return to home’ battery level. Set the warning higher than the default % to ensure time to safely land. The return to home level should be at the minimum point as you should have landed before this activates.


Battery

Running out of battery is unforgivable, and when filming off a boat you won’t have the luxury of features like automatic return to home (which you should never rely on anyway). With higher wind strength and the fact that the drone is flying alongside a moving boat, the battery will drain faster than on a normal flight.

The temperature also affects the battery efficiency and in cold conditions, your flight time will be reduced further still. Flying over the Great Wall of China in minus conditions, my older Phantom 3 required time on the ground to warm up the batteries before even being able to take off.

It is very important to leave yourself enough battery charge to return to the boat and successfully land. If the conditions are rough, you might need a few attempts to safely land. Adding stress to the situation because of a low battery will certainly not help. I suggest returning at around 40% and adjusting this depending on the conditions. I would recommend, you read the manual thoroughly and learn about safe battery use, charging and storage. If you are flying out to your boat location it’s important to check the airline’s battery policy; usually, you can take no more than two batteries and they must be in your hand luggage.


Weather

The weather is the single most important factor when flying a drone and the biggest safety consideration is wind speed. Each drone has a manufacturer’s recommended maximum wind limit, however in the right situations, with the right planning, this can be stretched.

As an example, with my DJI Phantom 4 Pro, 22mph (19 knots) is the maximum wind strength. In reality, the drone is capable of a lot more and I have flown in winds of up to 30 knots to capture the shots I need, especially when photographing sailing yachts. It is important to keep checking the wind strength as it can change quickly. Smaller drones like the DJI Mavic series are excellent for on the go situations but are more prone to possible ‘fly-aways’ in strong winds. For beginner pilots, I would always recommend you stick to the manufacturer’s recommended limits.


Sea-state

The sea state is also an important factor when returning the drone to land back aboard. I would recommend having someone who can help launch and catch the drone for you. Practice this on the land a few times so you can both get acquainted with the process. With pitching seas, it can be hard to make the final approach.

I experienced this a lot when flying in Cape Town. On more than one occasion, it had taken a few attempts for my assistant to safely catch the drone as the boat rose and fell in the waves. It is important not to overcompensate, for example, as the boat ducks into a trough, allow the boat to come back up to the drone instead of descending too far, or your assistant may have to deal with a fast-approaching drone with dangerous propellers.

Tip: Fly the drone backwards when making your final approach and position yourself behind the catcher. It is always best to simplify the situation and flying backwards will mean a conventional control layout, left is left, forward is forward.


Time of day

The time of day is an important consideration for achieving the ideal lighting for your shoot. Filming in the midday sun usually does not provide the best results due to the harsh nature of the light.

Filming too early or too late will stretch the sensor to its light limits and your footage will suffer from graining and noise. The best time will be at sunrise or sunset, that lovely ‘golden hour’ light, as in the example below.

Tip: If you would like to take your drone photography seriously, I cannot stress enough the importance of ND (neutral density) filters, these are essentially sunglasses for your camera. These varying levels of filter allow you more freedom to choose the settings of the camera, especially when taking video footage to achieve a great cinematic look. I would recommend using Polar Pro filters, but you need to understand the best way to use them.


Composition

There is a certain amount of freedom of composition when photographing yachts however there are certain angles which are better. It rarely looks good showing the yacht straight from the side on and finding the sweet spot from the forward and aft quarters generally provides the best aesthetics.

Height really is dependent on the yacht but, bringing the drone below the deck level is a great shot and usually makes the yacht look more powerful. It is critical if you bring the drone below the level of the deck that you constantly maintain eye contact on the drone, as you do not want to crash into the water or the yacht itself. Flying directly over the top of the yacht creates a unique perspective too, especially in shallow clear water.

The photograph below shows the aesthetically pleasing angle from the forward quarter and is from a low angle. As you can see, the rougher sea-state was an issue this day. Some excellent shots can be taken from in front of the yacht, but the risk of collision is quite high, so you need to be comfortable with your flying. Having Dick Durham, our editor, posing at the bow added interest.


Local Rules

It is important when flying drones to practice safe procedures. There are many factors to consider and this is increased when filming over water. Each country has very different rules and in the extreme, your drone may not be allowed entry in some countries, such as India, for example. Check up on any local rules before flying in a new area.

It is also very important you do not fly near airports or other no-fly zones. Modern DJI drones are programmed so that they cannot fly into ‘Geo Zones’. The DJI Fly Safe GEO Zone Map is the best way to check if there are any restrictions in the area you are planning to fly.

I would highly recommend learning a basic level of photography and how settings can manipulate your photos or video content before you begin.

I hope these tips have been informative and I wish you many happy flying hours.  Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any further questions:

hello@oceansailormagazine.com


Trystan Grace

Originally from Cornwall, England, Trystan Grace moved to Hong Kong where he started sailing. This developed his keen eye as a marine photographer and he quickly made a name for himself, especially as an aerial photographer in South East Asia and beyond until finally, he joined the Kraken team.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

Keep reading

There’s plenty more to read at Ocean Sailor. Check out some more Technical & Equipment articles …

Thank you!

Your Friend has been subscribed