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Flying Drones from Boats

Want to fly a drone from your boat? Sam Landsman, Laura Domela, and Kevin Morris share their tips from flying drones up and down the Inside Passage from Olympia, Washington to Sitka, Alaska.

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Know the law. Don’t fly above 400 feet (300 in Canada). Don’t fly over crowds, near airports, or near first responders. Don’t fly in State Parks or National Parks. For the full U.S. laws, click here. For the full Canadian laws, click here.

Respect other boaters. Drones are noisy, and many people view them suspiciously. As a drone owner, you know that the camera’s wide field-of-view is pretty useless for snooping, but other people don’t. Don’t buzz other boats. Don’t fly over wildlife, particularly if others are watching. If other boats are around, it never hurts to dinghy over and tell them you’ll be flying. Offering to take an aerial picture of their boat and send it to them always helps. Just don’t forget to send it.

Use common sense. Don’t fly in the rain. Don’t fly while intoxicated. Don’t fly in high winds. Don’t fly when planes are operating nearby. Don’t fly in the vicinity of airports. Ask marina operators permission before you fly. Don’t fly near commercial boats, ferries, law enforcement, or military vessels. Don’t abandon your responsibilities as captain just to fly a drone.

Practice on land. Most drones are neither buoyant nor waterproof. Before you fly over water, practice flying over land. Open fields are good places to start.

Stop the boat. When you first fly from the boat, stop the boat first. Launching from a moving boat is full of potential problems. Most drones will hover in place, but a moving boat can run into the drone.

Consider hand launching and retrieving. You can launch the drone above any deck hardware, and grab it out of the air before you hit something. Just remember to stay safe—props can be harmful to human bodies!

Get high. No, don’t fly intoxicated! But do gain altitude quickly—at least enough to clear any obstacles on the boat.

Beware of rigging. Drone propellers are fragile. Even a glancing hit can damage or destroy a prop, and three props won’t keep a drone in the air.

Don’t rely on “return to home.” Return to home works great on land, but if you took off from a boat, returning to the takeoff point will probably mean the drone will slowly lower itself to a watery death. Even at anchor your boat will swing. If you’re shooting while underway, it’s almost impossible to reposition the boat exactly as it was when the drone took off.

Fly in front of the boat. This gives you a chance to reconnect to the drone if you fly out of range. Most drones will automatically return to home if the drone and controller lose connection. If the drone is already behind the boat, it will speed further back to where it took off from. If the drone is in front of the boat, it will have to fly over the boat to get back to where it took off from. As it gets closer to the boat, you’ll have a chance of reconnecting to it.

Don’t drop the controller overboard (or fall overboard). Consider securing the controller to your body with some kind of strap. If you drop the controller overboard, you’ll lose your phone (or tablet) AND the drone—an expensive mistake!

Control one axis at a time. Particularly when landing, it’s easier to focus on controlling just one axis at a time. When landing, I position the drone so the camera is pointing away from me, typically aft. This way, if I move the stick left, the drone moves left; right and it moves right. Then I slowly bring the drone towards me, adjusting one axis at a time. With railings, antennas, and rigging sticking out of the boat, there’s a lot to hit. Moving one axis at a time helps avoid unintended movements and over-corrections.

Give yourself plenty of time. Don’t fly until the battery is dead. Give yourself plenty of time so you don’t feel rushed to get the drone back on the boat.

Take stills not video. Good video is more difficult to capture and requires much more storage space, computing power, and time to sort through.

Download pictures every time. Don’t take off for the next flight before downloading the pictures from previous flights. Any flight could be your last, and it’s a bummer to lose the drone AND the pictures you just took.

Don’t fly if you can’t afford to lose the drone. It doesn’t take much to crash a drone.