How To Fly a Drone to Make Awesome Video and Photos At Sea

We were at Nanny Cay Marina in Tortola, getting ready to cross the Atlantic to the Azores via Bermuda. I had just gotten a Karma, GoPro’s attempt at entering the recreational drone market.

Starting With a Bang

On our first test-flight off the boat, from the slip, I flew the drone out over the beach where some friends were playing volleyball. About a dozen or so other sailors had gathered around on the dock to watch. As the Karma flew over Peg Leg restaurant, it lost its WiFi connection with the controller.

It reverted to ‘return to home’ mode, flew back towards the boat at speed, and crashed spectacularly into the rigging just above the lower spreaders, smashing the rotors, falling out of the sky, and exploding as it bounced off Isbjorn‘s deck, leaving a deep gouge in the nonskid, before rolling into the water and disappearing.

In stunned silence, all the people who’d gathered round to watch walked slowly away.

That was the first, and last, time that we crashed a drone from the boat. I blame it on the Karma: the drone communicates with its controller via WiFi, which has a horribly short range.

Getting It Right

Since that day, we’ve flown dozens of successful ‘drone ops’ with the ‘right’ drone, a DJI Phantom 4 (more on that in a sec), from the deck of Isbjorn and now Icebear, including:

  • as far north as the high Arctic in Svalbard,
  • in mid-Atlantic with the spinnaker up in 25-knots of true wind,
  • along the lee coast of Guadaloupe as rainbows formed between little squalls,
  • and even in dense fog off New England.

Always managing to safely land the drone onboard and never injuring anyone in the process.

We’ve gotten truly priceless photos and videos of the boat at sea, shooting angles you literally couldn’t pay for—you’d never get a helicopter that far offshore even if you wanted to pay for it.

Not For Navigation

I read Matt’s recent article with interest on using drones and mast cams for pilotage inshore. Clever idea, but it’s never going to work, not unless you have a dedicated team piloting the boat, and another piloting the drone. I believe that you simply can’t do both at the same time, especially in tight, unfamiliar quarters.

For Ultimate Video and Photos

But as a toy, er, I mean tool, for fun, exciting photography and video? Oh, hell, yes!

Almost every time I post a drone video clip to our Instagram page I’m asked in the comments how we land it safely. We’ve made it look easy of late, but that wasn’t always the case.

In Scotland in 2017, we invited our friend and pro photographer James Austrums aboard Isbjorn for a three-week cruise from Oban to Shetland via the Isle of Skye, Stornoway and Fair Isle. James brought along his Phantom 4 in addition to his standard photography kit. The goal was to get him some practice shooting from the boat in preparation for when he would join us in the high Arctic for two months in 2018 to document our passage to Svalbard & Iceland.

Takeoff Good

In Scotland, we started flying the drone from Isbjorn‘s side deck. Launching it was easy:

  1. I held it above my head,
  2. James started the rotors,
  3. then flew backwards at speed away from the boat.

Landing, Not so Much

Landing it though was tougher. We thought that by heaving-to and stopping, we’d have a better chance at grabbing it from the side deck, opposite the boom and where there was the least amount of rigging to contend with. (Landing it on the dodger, or on some kind of contrived platform is out of the question, even at the calmest of anchorages—just too much rigging and stuff in the way.)

Well, as you can see from the little supercut video below of our antics, this side-deck landing business wouldn’t do. At best, it was tricky with the swell moving the boat up and down and James having to fly it in three dimensions as we slowly drifted sideways while hove-to. At worst, we nearly lost it when I missed the catch, but James, one hand on the controller, somehow leaped and grabbed it with the other hand inches before it was about to smash into the boom.

Learning From The Volvo

Then we started watching the onboard reporters (OBRs) in the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), which was happening that summer. The OBRs had the same drones (Phantom 4s) and were getting bonkers footage in the southern ocean, in big winds and gnarly seas, with the boats sailing at over 20 knots and water flying all around.

Hell, if they can do it in that weather, we can start taking some more risks, James and I thought. So we changed our tactic, and followed the VOR OBRs.

Their technique was to use the back of the boat like an aircraft carrier. With no ‘crap’ hanging off the transom, the Volvo 65s offer a clean and unhindered launching and landing spot right aft. At launch, the drone flies up, the boat sails away. At landing, if you mess up an approach, just let go the controls and the boat, still sailing, continues safely away—no crashing. We adopted the technique the following summer in the Arctic.

Getting It Right

James joined us in Bodø, just above the Arctic circle in Norway, on our way to Tromsø, our final jumping off point for Spitsbergen. James had two drones this time:

  • The trusty Phantom 4.
  • A new DJI Inspire. A $10,000 piece of kit that came in a case that was so close to not fitting inside the boat that we had to remove the door to the aft cabin to get it inside. For the next two months, I climbed over the thing every time I wanted to get in or out of my bunk.

The Inspire was too big and too expensive to risk flying from the boat, so we got good with the Phantom.

There is one small exception, a story that I just have to tell. On our second night in Spitsbergen, in Hornsund at 77˚North, just as I was about to go down below where Mia was serving dinner to the rest of the crew, I spotted our first polar bear up on a rise on a nearby hill. Everyone raced on deck with cameras and binoculars.

Unbeknownst to me, given the excitement, James stayed below assembling the Inspire. Before I could say no, he handed me the thing and launched it from the boat, albeit at anchor. He hadn’t waited long enough for the GPS to acquire a signal, so very quickly the big drone was blown downwind on the breeze.

I ordered the crew to launch the dinghy so we could mount a rescue mission in case he had to crash land on the shoreline. So Steve, another of Isbjorn‘s crew, and I loaded the rifle, grabbed a survival suit and the handheld VHF, and dinghied in to shore while the others kept tabs on the bear, who was quietly eating a seal in a snow bank a few hundred yards up the hill.

Long story short, James regained control of the Inspire, got our first shots of the two ‘isbjorns’ (the boat and the bear) and safely landed on the beach right where Steve and I had come ashore.

We returned to the boat just in time to weigh anchor, as a big slab of sea ice at the head of the fjord had broken loose and was drifting down onto our position. We moved, re-anchored, and finally ate that dinner at about 11:30 pm!

Now We’re Cooking

Anyway, we flew the Phantom off the boat all the time, both at anchor and at sea, and got some once-in-a-lifetime aerial shots from that summer in the Arctic:

  • Sailing amongst the ice in Hornsund;
  • Beluga whales near 80˚North;
  • 300-foot icebergs in Denmark Strait, dwarfing the boat to the point Isbjorn almost isn’t visible in the picture;
  • Humpback whales in Iceland’s west fjords.

Our practice has paid off in the mid-latitudes too. Learning by watching James, I’ve become a pretty damn good drone pilot in my own right, and we’ve continued to push the envelope in weather conditions we’ll fly the thing in.

Recently, on passage to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, we had it up in 25-knots true, beam-reaching on Icebear, our new-to-us Swan 59, with everything up making 11 knots through the water blast-reaching towards the coast.

And check out this cool video we shot while sailing in fog:

How-To Tips

This is how we do it:

Takeoff and Flying

  • Fly The Phantom 4, the only drone I believe is capable of being flown from a moving boat (it was the choice of the VOR after all, so that should tell you something). The fixed ‘landing gear’ legs offer a positive handle to grab onto when launching & landing, and are far enough from the rotors not to lose a finger. (The Mavic Pro is useless at sea as there’s no landing gear, and catching it by the body is too risky).
  • Fly in full manual mode (the GPS is still on, but all sensors are turned off, landing assist is off, etc.).
  • Capture all the footage manually.
  • Don’t use the tracking functions. As neat as they are, after hours of practice, I can get a smoother shot manually and I like to be in full control at sea, because there is no ‘return to home’ function out there.
  • Set the drone to ‘hover’ mode, should it lose connection with the controller. Our hope is that we could sail back to it, rather than have it ‘return to home’, as home has since sailed away!
  • Fly with DJI’s optional ND filter screwed onto the camera lens, for smoother video footage in bright sunlight.
  • Always start with 100% battery.
  • Always start the landing sequence at 60% battery.
  • Record video at takeoff—the launch shots are some of the coolest.
  • Always make sure to wait a count or two after the rotors have started up before launching—on two occasions, a rotor wasn’t properly fixed in place and went spinning off to sea. Thankfully Mia hadn’t released yet and we had spare rotors!
  • Once airborne, reset the home point to the Phantom’s current position every 5 minutes or so. I learned this the hard way, as one time the drone almost tried to fly itself ‘home’, because it had calculated that it only had enough battery power to just make it. But ‘home’ was the GPS position where we launched from, which was, by that time, 5 km in our wake!

Landing

Landing is simpler than it looks:

  • Keep the boat sailing straight and fast (we use the autopilot).
  • Fly the drone in towards the stern backwards, piloting visually. The forward crash sensors are impossible to turn off, so the Phantom won’t let you fly it in forward close enough to catch it.
  • Position one of the crew aft on the transom.
  • Bring the drone to them, from above.
  • If a wave slews the boat off course, just let go the controls, the boat sails safely away, and come in again for a second attempt.
  • This should go without saying: Download all the footage from the SD card after every single flight. Isbjorn‘s new skipper August Sandberg tells the story of a client of his in Lofoten flying a drone for a full week, then crashing it in spectacular fashion on the last day of the trip, thereby instantly losing all his footage since he never took the time to download it!

Check out the short video below of a full flight at sea:

It’s Not Risk Free

We’ve yet to lose a drone offshore, but we’ve accepted the fact that one day we probably will. This is easier for us to say since we’re running a business and the drone is basically a marketing cost, but still, what’s the point in having it unless we’re going to push the envelope and get some truly unique footage? When it finally does plunge into the sea, well, then we’ll get another one—hopefully the Phantom 5 will be out by then!

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Meet the Author

AndySchell

Andy grew up sailing on the Chesapeake Bay and spent a year cruising Bahamas with his family. He met Mia on a backpacking trip in New Zealand in 2006, and the two have been seeking adventures together ever since. They've logged over 70,000 bluewater miles and have crossed the Atlantic a combined nine times (5 for Mia, 4 for Andy). Andy and Mia share their love of offshore sailing by taking paying crew on voyages on their Swan 48 "Isbjorn" and through their wildly popular podcast On The Wind Andy & Mia are based in Sweden when they're off the boat & love endurance sports!

13 comments… add one
  • Carl Nelson Sep 8, 2019, 10:58 am

    I’ve attached a 3ft length of cord that hangs from the middle of the fuselage of my Mavic Pro. There’s a small fishing weight on the end to make sure it hangs straight. To retrieve I approach from the stern and simply grab the cord. It then flies a bit like a kite and I can pull it closer. I slide my other hand up the cord to grab the fuselage.

    • Mark Bodnar Sep 9, 2019, 4:07 pm

      I’ve thought exactly the same thing – watching people trying to grab so close to the rotors looks risky. With a string hanging down you can grab it the same way a pilot lands on an aircraft carrier – powering away unless it’s restrained.
      I also wondered about a soft netting strung out off the back of the boat – drop down into the netting and let in tangle to stop.
      I’m yet to get a drone so all theoretical from my end so far – glad to hear it’s working for you.
      Mark

      • AndySchell Sep 9, 2019, 6:47 pm

        Interesting ideas, but I think simple is best especially at sea. Works for us anyway…!

        Andy

    • Chris Steingraber Oct 19, 2019, 1:26 pm

      Carl thanks for sharing this great idea. I fly a mavic 2 pro which I think is the best drone out there for the space cost and image (much bigger sensor and good aperture). The only time it’s a challenge is on a sailboat but it’s so tiny it’s ideal storage wise. It has great range, speed (especially w sport mode to get back) and low windage unlike phantom and folds down to a quarter size of a phantom. After using it to acquire footage while single handing it was pretty rough to control in one hand and fly it to match boat speed sailing while getting it close to catch with the other hand! While reading this article the only thing I was thinking was how to to add a way to land it as thats the only downside which would other wise make it a better option. I will try your rope and weight idea with a thin kevlar line and tiny weight. That might even add some more stability to the drone’s images and hopefully not reduce flight time too noticeably.

      https://www.instagram.com/p/BscMM47npI_0vU93nhZvKhkjhosHeV55-Geq9o0/?igshid=1n8yo3hwnwpmq

      -Chris Steingraber, Tartan 34C
      I’m a full time professional cinematographer with commercial drone certification
      joshwaproductions.com

  • Chuck Batson Sep 8, 2019, 3:05 pm

    Wow, thank you for these excellent tips and amazing footage! I suppose when you’re in international waters licensing is not a concern?

    • AndySchell Sep 9, 2019, 6:49 pm

      Yeah never had to worry about it offshore, so pretty easy. Up in Svalbard the licensing was no issue (didn’t need one), BUT they were very strict on how they were flown and used especially around wildlife. Respect is key, obviously.

      Andy

  • Jordan Bettis Sep 8, 2019, 3:39 pm

    Regarding your risk of losing the drone: the number of different types of shots you can get from a drone are limited—especially of a sailboat at sea.

    It seems like it might be sufficient to use the drone to accumulate B-roll, and then after you have a decent amount of footage, the marginal utility of the drone will drop to the point where it doesn’t matter if it gets lost, and it may even be beneficial given how much space it uses.

    • AndySchell Sep 9, 2019, 6:50 pm

      Yes Jordan, but dude they’re all so cool! And it’s fun to fly 😉 Gotta get you on the big boat now next time! 😉

      Andy

      • Jordan Bettis Sep 21, 2019, 6:26 pm

        I would like to see the big boat some time Andy!

        This year I sailed with my Dad up to Green Bay and explored the islands and bays there.

  • denis Foster Sep 8, 2019, 5:48 pm

    Hello,

    We have little experience with an Anafi Parrot drone.
    Pro s
    – much cheaper
    – good video 4K stabilized.

    – NO Sensors other than the underneath
    – around 25 minutes true fly time.

    Con s
    – Not easy to hand land.
    – more fragile than Phantom or even Mavic 2 pro.

    I will also practice the fishing line with little fishing weight landing technique first on land then from the boat.

    Regards

    Denis

  • Marc Dacey Sep 15, 2019, 1:24 pm

    Andy, nice and informative piece. While I agree with you that drones may be limited in terms of close-in nav, as “virtual mast steps/crow’s nest”, they may have some advantages to see if lagoon entrances have new, unchartered coral heads or the presence of some underwater obstruction is revealed, which could avoid a snagged anchor or worse. Obviously, this would only work in daylight and in relatively benign conditions. Another idea that occurs is using a drone (where legal to fly) to scope out an anchorage to ascertain if there’s enough room if said anchorage is partially obscured by a mole or low spit, and other parking problems.

    That said, just the great footage alone is worth the price to play.

  • paul edelkamp Oct 15, 2019, 11:17 am

    It was a Pleasure to meet and get pictures with all of you’re crew, and Delos Etc.
    Used are Mavic 2 to check out Back Creek for room to anchor. Love Photography and these Drones open up a whole new world.

  • Kevin Black Oct 20, 2019, 12:29 am

    I have been flying my Mavic Pro off boats for a little over a year now. I also use the lanyard method to retrieve the drone. I simply tie a lanyard around the drone and leave about 3 feet of it hanging down and then tied a plastic clip on it to keep the cord down. I tried a metal washer at first, but it almost flew up into the props when I stopped quickly in sport mode. The plastic isn’t heavy enough to kick up into the props but is heavy enough to keep the cord hanging down. I recently sailed from Connecticut to South Carolina and flew the drone four times while out sailing/motoring. Got great video and stills!