Eyes in the Sky: Mast Cams & Drones

iStock Biletskiy_Evgeniy

You’re approaching an unfamiliar inlet. The water’s shallow, the charts are poor, and you have no real idea of what to expect on the way in. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an eye in the sky, showing you what’s ahead?

The relentless advancement of technology has made photographic reconnaissance so affordable that some of this equipment is now approaching impulse-buy levels. Some of us—particularly those who cruise shallow, coral strewn areas and those who like to fish—will undoubtedly find mast cameras, drone cameras, and other photo recon equipment intriguing.

Mast Cameras

CCTV technology is not exactly new. What’s changed in the last few years is the cost and the quality, both of which have improved dramatically.

An all-encompassing, top-down view of the foredeck and everything within immediate ramming range ahead of it is not difficult to achieve. The cameras and their displays are now commodity items sold for the automotive and security markets, running from $200 to $500 for a set.

Look for:

  • Reasonable field of view. A primary masthead camera should have a viewing angle of 90 to 120 degrees. This gives a good view of everything between the boat’s foredeck and the horizon, with the view centred roughly one boat-length ahead of the bow.
  • High resolution digital sensor. The difference between a 640×480 camera and a 1920×1080 one is quite noticeable. If you’re trying to spot growlers or coral heads, every pixel counts.
  • Large colour gamut and dynamic range. A video image that is close to true colour and isn’t devoid of detail in the brightest and darkest areas is definitely worth the extra few dollars.
  • Standard cabling. Network cameras that use power-over-Ethernet (PoE) and standard streaming video codecs are popular, and are widely supported on all kinds of computers and other display devices. Proprietary protocols can be tricky to troubleshoot, and are best avoided. USB doesn’t have the range to reach a masthead without powered extenders, which cost more than just using PoE in the first place.
  • Good frame rate. Many webcam-style units can do 30 frames per second…. but only at reduced resolution, and might pull only 10 fps at full HD resolution. That’s a recipe for blurred, jerky, unhelpful images. Look for something that can reliably push 30 fps or better at its maximum resolution.
  • Waterproof connector seals. It should go without saying that an exposed Ethernet plug with no gasket or O-ring is not going to last very long on a sailboat’s mast. Connectors rated at IP66 or better are definitely worth the extra $15.

Not necessary:

  • Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It can make installation slightly more convenient, but make sure you won’t have to climb to the masthead to reprogram the thing when it goes offline.
  • High “TVL” rating. Short for “TV Lines”, this is an outdated resolution metric from the analog CCTV days. There are several huge warehouses full of cameras from the 1990s and early 2000s, whose owners are now desperately trying to sell them off. Anything with a TVL number on its spec sheet is outdated analog junk. Far better to spend the extra few dollars for a modern, fully digital system.
  • Integration with any other marine electronics. A simple outdoor 1080p PoE camera, that dumps a video feed to the network for any computer or tablet that you want to use to view it, is sufficient for this job. I’m hard pressed to think of any benefit to be had from trying to integrate it with a chartplotter or other marine electronics.

Drones / UAVs

Unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) are, again, nothing new. The combination of cost, convenience and capability that current models offer, though, is something that some cruising sailors might find interesting.

There’s been a tremendous surge of interest and technological development in tiny unmanned aircraft lately. Simple two-pound quadcopters now cost less than $100, and waterproof long-range ones with real-time video downlinks are selling for $1000 to $2000.

Model aircraft (which are controlled, remotely, by a pilot) and drones (which have an onboard computer that runs the flight controls, following mission instructions set remotely by the pilot) offer the potential to put a live video camera a few hundred feet ahead of the boat. They certainly aren’t the right solution for everyone, but some cruising sailors may well be interested in adding this capability.

Look for:

  • Long endurance. The cheapest UAVs can only fly for five to ten minutes before landing for a battery change. That may not be enough for surveying a tricky inlet or anchorage—and don’t forget some reserve power for the trip back to the boat if the wind changes.
  • High wind capability. Very few UAVs can fly properly in winds stronger than Force 3, and considerable skill is required to handle them in gusty conditions.
  • Reliable, high-quality video downlink. Try before you buy, making sure that the interface is easy to use and that the images are good enough that you’ll be able to see sandbars and coral heads.
  • Waterproof and buoyant. Quadcopters tend to crash rather frequently. Waterproof, floating drones from the likes of Splash, the collapsible inflatable Diodon, or submersible ones like the Tetra, cost a lot more than their dry-land counterparts, but also don’t need to be replaced every time you botch a water landing.

Not necessary:

  • Automatic return-to-base, automatic landing, etc. These features are useless if “home base” has moved during the flight, as is the case for a ship-launched UAV. That said, I can imagine someone flying the drone in and out of a particularly tight anchorage, then copying its GPS track to the yacht’s chartplotter as a series of target waypoints.
  • High-altitude / high-speed capability. If you have one of these things, you’ll always fly it within visual range of the boat, at speeds low enough to see what it’s doing and get usable pictures back, and rarely at more than 300 feet altitude.


Do you have some form of electronic crow’s nest on your boat (drone or camera)?

Please tell us about it in the comments.

[John here, so far I have kept my gadget freak tendencies under control where  drones are concerned, but given my love of photography it’s been tough.  So do any of you fellow cruisers out there have drones you use for photography and if so, what’s your experience been? Go ahead tempt me.]

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Matt, Engineering Correspondent, is a Professional Engineer and true renaissance man, with a wide range of expertise including photography and all things boat design. He has a unique ability to make complex subjects easy to understand and he keeps an eye on the rest of us to make sure that we don’t make any technical mistakes. Working as M. B. Marsh Marine Design, Matt designs innovative powerboats of all shapes and sizes.

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