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 QuadH2O and 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.

Comments

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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Meet the Author

Matt

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.

21 comments… add one
  • Marc Dacey Jun 5, 2019, 8:23 pm

    I have rather large feet and am a foot taller than my co-skipper. Both factors, along with the cost of pre-made mast steps and the issue of windage and/or line snags, argued against installing mast steps. I ran the numbers and a mid-range drone was actually cheaper than the necessary steps. In addition, I come from a TV/film production background and should be able to, with practice, get great shots of the vessel underway and the places we visit for interested parties at home and abroad. But really, the idea of a 100-metre-high “view over the bow” is the clinching argument. A drone is an exceptional aid to tricky navigation. In addition, many drones can fly about 500 metres up, and possibly greater heights if modified, although I wouldn’t do this near land. Even at the lower altitude, one’s “height of eye” can give you advance warning of squalls/fronts before the radar at the spreaders can. That’s potentially very useful information.

  • Ernest E Vogelsinger Jun 6, 2019, 4:24 am

    Just as a note aside, there are countries where drones are plain forbidden. For example, when checking in into Morocco, you’ll be confronted with the question if there’s a drone on board – if you have one the drone must be handed over to the authorities. It will be returned when you’re checking out to leave the country – at least they promise this…

    • Richard Elder Jun 6, 2019, 10:04 am

      Hi Ernest
      I now live in Wyoming where hunting is as much a part of the culture as branding calves. However with the advent of Mad Deer Disease (CDW) in our herds it is a dying sport. (no pun intended). I’m considering starting an alternative form of hunting. In the spirit of the New West, our member-supported organization will pay bounties for every drone killed and submitted with its body punctured by shotgun pellets.

      • Ernest E Vogelsinger Jun 7, 2019, 8:50 am

        LOL now that sounds just like fun 🙂

  • Stein Varjord Jun 6, 2019, 5:59 am

    I have no experience with neither mast head camera nor drone, but routinely use Google maps in satellite mode for added info in tight areas and for finding nice looking coves etc. Satellite imagery isn’t fresh info, and also not sharp enough, so improvement is interesting.

    For steering into shallow areas, I’d guess a mast cam is the right solution. It’s available immediately, by just turning it on, and should be quite reliable. A drone is way more vulnerable and demands a lot of attention, which might be needed for other tasks, especially when sailing short handed. A drone can look at a bigger area, further away, but this function is often filled well enough by satellite images. A drone can also look from different angles, which in some light conditions could be important for seeing below the surface.

    As I think now, in the not too distant future, I’ll get a good mast head camera, wire it by Ethernet (with PoE) to the onboard internet router so the images can be picked up by any internet able device on the boat. I’ll probably get a drone too, when I can afford it, but I guess it’ll mostly be for other purposes than navigation.

  • Dan Perrott Jun 6, 2019, 10:23 am

    I like the idea of the forward visibility provided by a drone. Everyone I’ve met with one on a boat has a a hard time landing it back on board in anything other than calm (wind and waves) conditions.

    • Matt Jun 6, 2019, 9:40 pm

      Landing it back on board is the part that I find most uncertain about the drone idea, hence my interest in waterproof / floating ones. The tiny little quadcopter that I take out to the backyard on occasion tends to crash three times more often than it lands softly, which I will blame on the thing’s computer and not at all on the skill of its pilot. It only weighs about 250 grams, so a hard landing doesn’t really hurt it, but crashing a three-pound $1000 beast into your lifelines or shrouds would definitely be an “aww dammit….” moment.

  • Stephen James Jun 6, 2019, 10:25 am

    Last winter I cruised with a DJI Magic Pro aboard. Some excellent photos and fun unusual, possibly unique, videos of remote locations made it very worthwhile. A few poorly edited videos are available on YouTube. That said we did keep the drone a secret while in Morocco. Drones are also prohibited in most commercial harbors and now require a license in many locations. Wind is a large consideration and I almost lost it in unknown wind at 200m altitude. Landing on a sailboat is a challenge that was solved with a handheld landing platform (see video) but I never developed the courage to do it while underway. That fact limits its usefulness for navigation for me. For navigation a mast head camera would seem to be much more appropriate.

    • Petter Mather Simonsen Jun 18, 2019, 10:48 am

      Would be fun to watch Stephen, and a video or blog link would be helpful. Possible?
      Greetings!

  • Dick Stevenson Jun 6, 2019, 10:50 am

    Hi all,
    It is with deep regret (and a good bit of nostalgia) that I have recently given away my ratlines, which had been instrumental at getting us around Central America where we found the charts were merely a suggestion of what you might find. Even just getting to the first spreader made a huge difference. And then there was the romantic feeling of being “up in the rigging”.
    But, that said, a mast head camera with good definition (especially if it could mitigate late-day sun glare) sounds just fabulous. If as good as expected, I suspect they will quickly become common on boats in terrain where eyeball navigation is needed.
    Thanks for the article, Matt. I had no idea that this was possible.
    My best, Dick Stevenson

    • Matt Jun 6, 2019, 9:36 pm

      I also kind of like the *idea* of being up in the crow’s nest, but practically speaking, there are good reasons why we generally don’t build boats with that in mind any more.
      Late-day glare is going to be really hard to eliminate completely, but I’d expect the difference in angles between a downward-looking masthead camera and a forward-looking human eye might be large enough that if one’s blinded by glare, the other will have a clear view.

  • Will Kirkness Jun 6, 2019, 12:39 pm

    It is wonderful to see these new devices being used for practical purposes. UAV’s can perform a task that would be a safety risk to a person, both in the workforce and at sea.

    However, I have developed a deep hatred of UAV’s due to irresponsible operators. While walking a beach in a National Park, one operator was trying to get his “You Tube” montage or something… He seemed absolutely oblivious that the birds that were constantly swarming his drone were highly stressed parents trying to protect their young hidden in the grass. The birds, of course, would have no clue that getting too close would mean a clipped wing, or worse. I have seen this behaviour so often in you tube footage and in many otherwise beautiful and peaceful locations in person.

    Another operator thought it would be fun to follow my wife around an anchorage while she was trying to have a quiet paddleboard in the evening – all while safely hidden in his creep cabin somewhere else in the anchorage. I mean – she is a babe, but this is unacceptable and I would suggest that the operator stay well hidden for his own safety.

    This thoughtless use of these tools is what has led to increased regulation – which is always a bother. Anyone operating a drone or considering a purchase should please remember that everyone but you thinks they are incredibly annoying, a major intrusion of privacy and highly stressful to wildlife.

    No one cares that you Drone. No one.

    With this in mind, I believe these tools can be used highly effectively by removing people from an unsafe task and by guiding your vessel to safety.

  • Gary Church Jun 6, 2019, 12:50 pm

    Be aware the US Federal Aviation Administration as well as other countries, such as the Bahamas, have laws, rules and regulations concerning the operation of drones. For example the FAA prohibits operation above 400 feet and they also prohibit operations within 5 miles of an airport without authorization. The Bahamas expect you to pay for operating your drone in their country.

    While enforcement of these laws, rules and regulations have thus far been lax if you own a drone you may want to review each country’s requirements prior to bringing it the country as well as operating it.

    • Matt Jun 6, 2019, 9:30 pm

      Many countries are starting to regulate drones much more heavily these days.

      The model aircraft community always used to be self-policing and had high barriers to entry, in the form of required skills to get something off the ground, which kept it outside the interest of regulators. Drones broke that model.

      Even Transport Canada, which for many years declined to regulate these things, eventually had their hand forced by too many asshats doing stupid stuff and causing trouble with their new toys. Now there’s a big list of places you can’t fly them at all, and another big list of drone types, purposes, and places where you need to be licensed.

  • Ernest E Vogelsinger Jun 7, 2019, 8:56 am

    After thinking a bit about drones as navigational aides I don’t believe they are just ready yet and up to the task.
    First of all they need to be waterproof and must be able to operate at least up to force 3 or 4. While some models might offer these features, a lot of wind costs a lot of energy, so the operational time is limited well below the 20 minutes as it is widely spec’d for drones now.
    And IMHO 20 minutes are way too short to be of value, the more as I need to calculate for some time for the drone to return base, two or three attempts may be necessary, so the time available for a tricky navigation might come down to ten minutes.
    And this might lead just to a situation where I need to get my drone back when I’m just in the middle of the sh..t – not a situation I’d wish to be in.
    Masthead cams yes, drones for nice views of an anchorage, but not for navigational purposes.
    (And beware of the Richard Elders out there *g*)

  • Christophe De VEYRAC Jun 7, 2019, 3:53 pm

    Hi Matt, Thanks for writing about this topic. There is a lot of fun to be had poking around in uncharted water for a safe anchorage. We have done it quite a few times over the last 2 years sailing the patagonian channels and the Antarctic peninsula. We usualy rely on eyesight ( reading the water), the depthsounder, touch and feel (the centre board scraping the bottom! ) and google map pictures if we had cached them before leaving. We also have a forward sonar , which , when it works (;-) is somewhat useful. I can see how mast head camera in particular would further help. But I wonder in end if all these gizmos will make it so mundane that it will take away the pleasure and satisfaction to discover your very own anchorage. I also wonder the impact on sailing skills. Why bother reading the water with all this info at hand ? Anyway will you have the time to look at the water if you have to look at all these screens and data? For me, the quest of risk free sailing is self defeating. I know that if one day sailing remote areas become as mundane as driving a car I will have to move on to something a bit more exciting.

    • John Jun 8, 2019, 8:21 am

      Hi Christophe,

      As someone who has spent years poking around in poorly charted, or completely uncharted, waters, your comment really resonated with me.

      On the other hand we have had a forward scan sonar for the last 20 years and would not be without it.

      So, like so many things, I guess the secret is maintaining a good balance between gadgets and situation awareness. That said, when in doubt I would always weight situation awareness ahead of gadgets and like you I worry about the distraction potential.

      • Matt Jun 10, 2019, 7:19 am

        Christophe, I think the transition from “helpful gadgets” to “overwhelmed and obsessed by gadgets” is more a function of the skipper’s state of mind than of the specific technologies involved.

        I’ve been nearly run down a couple of times by yahoos in 40′ express cruisers who, in the quest to explore every feature of their new networked chart plotter, neglected to look out the windshield for several minutes at 25 knots. I’ve also pulled a boat off a well known, clearly charted sandbar that it almost certainly would not have grounded on had the skipper carried any kind of navigation technology at all, even just a photocopy of a paper chart. The gadgets (or lack thereof) weren’t the problem; the carelessness and lack of awarenes was.

        For some people, the quest to select, buy, install, and master the use of every new gadget they can get their hands on *is* part of the fun of sailing. I’m certainly not going to deny them that indulgence. Personally, I am likely to carry fewer and simpler electronics, and to navigate by bearings, landmarks, and wave patterns; I spend the whole work week immersed in software and electronics, so I find pleasure in getting away from them. But that’s just me.

  • P D Squire Jun 9, 2019, 3:10 am

    I like the idea of reconnaissance from aloft prior to entering a new incompletely charted place. If the mast head camera isn’t high enough there might be a case for using a kite. It seems to have advantages over a drone in this application.

  • AndySchell Jun 10, 2019, 1:38 pm

    Good article and an interesting topic. We’ve been using a DJI Phantom 4 offshore for FUN a ton over the past three years, with great success. After watching what the Volvo race guys were doing, what kinds of conditions they flew in, etc, we’ve gotten braver and braver with ours and so far have been successful in landing it at sea, even in 25+ knots of wind. We’ve gotten some epic shots of the boats under sail in mid-Atlantic, which are literally priceless – you could never have gotten that perspective 1,000 miles offshore.

    I’m skeptical about their use as nav aids though. The concentration required to pilot one, land it safely, etc, plus the short battery life just doesn’t seem feasible when you’d also be in a tight spot with the boat. You’d need to have a big enough crew where two people could be piloting the drone (a pilot and a ‘catcher’), while the rest of the crew piloted the boat. We were able to do just this in Svalbard last year with a crew of 8, and a highly skilled drone pilot (we had a pro photographer along), but shorthanded, I think you’d be most likely to crash the drone or crash the boat, cause you simply can’t focus hard enough on both at the same time.

    All that said, the only drone worth buying for flying at sea is the Phantom 4 – it’s got the ‘landing gear’ that is far enough below the props to safely catch it at sea, and actually grab onto it with confidence. Just keep the boat sailing or powering ahead, and bring the drone in – backwards, so the sensors don’t stop it – and land off the transom. If you mess up, just let go the controls and the boat sails safely away and you can come around for another attempt. Won’t work with lots of ‘stuff’ on the stern though.

  • Slawomir Chmielewski Jun 15, 2019, 5:44 pm

    Does anybody know a proven and tested under the spreader mounted camera for surveillance or anchoring help? I look for a reliable solution which has better than Raymarine CAM220 IP parameters.
    My requirements:
    ball type housing
    horizontal angle: 60 – 30 degrees
    ONVIF
    H.265 and 4K would be great instead of H.264 and FHD
    pan and tilt would be great

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