The Phantom has landed - lessons our drones have taught me
Anyone who has looked at this website or read any of our posts on Facebook or Instagram will have noticed that we love posting photographs (and a few videos) taken from our drones.
As I sit here now typing this, I have flown the drones well over 300 times while onboard LADY ROSLYN and quite a number of those flights have been while we are underway, sometimes in quite breezy conditions.
We've received some very complimentary comments about the images we've posted, from people who read our blog or follow us on Facebook. I thought to write down some of the lessons I have learned while flying the drones onboard, so that other sailors, who might otherwise be unsure of which drone to buy or how best to avoid problems when flying while underway, might benefit from the mistakes I have made.
There have been many occasions when adrenaline has been coursing through my veins while flying and my knees are wobbling when the drone is back onboard. The points below are not in any specific order but hopefully they might help you in a similar situation.
1. Don't fly your drone while onboard and especially while underway unless you are prepared to lose it. We currently have 2 drones onboard, with 2 drones lost in the last 2 seasons. Last year in Croatia while launching the Phantom 4 Pro off from the starboard rear step, while motoring in lumpy seas near some beautiful cliffs (and after having been warned by my all-knowing wife), the drone clipped the topping lift between boom and mast and spiraled into the water. I jumped in and retrieved it after only 5 seconds in the water, rinsed it, dried it with a hairdryer on cool and packed it with desiccant. Unfortunately it had drowned and never started again.
This year while flying the Mavic Pro from land on Amorgos Island in Greece, near the famous monastery, I had a fly-away and it crashed into a cliff face, which ripped off the camera gimbal and severely dented the body and battery. Fortunately I was able to send both drones back to the factory in China. DJI replaced both drones with a pay-in, which was painful, but luckily it was not the cost of a complete new drone package.
2. Study your boat carefully to find the best spot to launch and land your drone. It should have maximum free space around it from sheets, shrouds, sails, safety rails, etc. On LADY ROSLYN, I use the starboard foredeck, just behind the large hatch, for launching and landing when stationery. I use the starboard rear engine bay deck area, where I stand, for hand launching and retrieval while underway.
3. Only fly with a completely full battery pack. This is a simple one, you want maximum flight time and maximum reserve time incase landing the drone back onboard causes problems. I have spare batteries for each drone and the battery I have just used is always placed on charge as soon as I land and switch off the drone.
4. If taking off from the foredeck as point 2 above, I lift off about a metre, fly right about 2 metres and go immediately up to at least 25 metres. I want to be close to our boat, especially if there are other yachts around and I want to make sure I am clear of our mast as quickly and as safely as possible. Our mast is 22m high so I make sure I am above that and the VHF aerial before even thinking about where I am going to fly the drone. I didn't follow that rule last year when I accidentally clipped the topping lift with the Phantom 4 Pro and I felt sick afterwards for not having followed the rule.
5. FFF - Fly Far First. If anyone reading this has looked at the interactive map on our website, they will see that I have now built up a database of nearly 200 anchorages in Croatia, Montenegro, Greece and Turkey, with drone photographs which can be seen by clicking on the little anchor signs on the map. I usually try to capture a shot which shows the entire bay, one closer in and then spend time on the close up shots. I always fly out to the furthest point of the flight immediately after taking off and then gradually make my way back towards LADY ROSLYN while changing height. That way when the battery reserves get low, I am usually very near to the boat.
There is nothing like the persistent beep of the controller telling me that I have "Low Battery" to send my heart racing and stomach churning.
6. Keep an eye on the battery time left indicator on your smartphone or tablet. Watching this makes me much more aware of what I can still achieve with the flight time remaining. The Low Battery alarm beep starts at 30% battery remaining and while I do sometimes fly when it is beeping, I know I am close to the boat AND we are stationery.
I always make sure I am ready to hand retrieve when flying while underway well BEFORE the controller starts beeping at me. The combination of being underway and needing to get the drone retrieved and the the Low Battery alarm beeping is VERY stressful.
7. Immediately after landing, take the SD card out of the drone, transfer the images to your PC and put the SD card back in the drone. This has become habit for me now. The reason I do it is so that if I lose the drone on the next flight, I have downloaded all the images and footage off the SD card. By getting into the habit of downloading and then putting the SD back into the drone immediately, it saves me forgetting and then ending up taking off again with no SD card in the drone (I've certainly done that a few times).
8. Set the file name setting on the drone to CONTINUOUS. By cutting and pasting all images off the SD card to PC after each flight, you end up with lots of images starting DJI_0001.jpg, DJI_0002.jpg, etc unless you set it to continuous which builds up the number sequence even if you have cut and pasted the images off the SD card.
9. ALWAYS wait before taking off until you hear your smartphone or tablet tell you "The home point has been updated. Please check it on the map" and you can see the small map on your smartphone has updated to your current location. You want to know that the GPS signal has locked on to your location. Do NOT under any circumstances fly in ATTI mode while outside. While up against the cliffs on Amorgos Island, I waited and waited for the GPS signal to lock on and it wouldn't. I only wanted to take off, fly about 50 metres out and take photos of the amazing monastery clinging to the cliffs. The error I made was in taking off in ATTI mode. The drone flew away from us, with me having absolutely no control over it. It accelerated and smashed into pieces against the cliffs a couple of hundred metres away and I was very lucky to be able to retrieve all the parts which had broken off. I can assure you, you will feel sick if this happens to you.
10. At the end of the flight, bring the drone back higher than the mast and close to the boat so you can easily see it. After that, swivel the drone so that the camera is facing away from you. No longer look at the screen of your smartphone or tablet. Look at the drone. By having the drone face away from you, all your controls are intuitive - right is right, left is left, forward is forward, reverse is reverse and up/down is as normal. It's much easier to bring it back accurately this way instead of having to try and watch the drone move left while you press right on the controller and have to correct for this.
The points above apply equally to both of the drones which we own and they apply to take-off and landings while the boat is stationery as well as hand launches and retrievals while underway (other than point 4 above). However, there are some tips I have learned if you specifically intend flying while sailing and needing to hand launch and hand retrieve the drone.
10. Disable ALL sensors on the drone. Do not even think of taking off if you have any of the forward, backward, side or bottom sensors activated. We had many near misses last year before I worked out that this needed to be done. Every time I flew the drone in close to hand catch, it would sense my arm or part of the boat and raise itself and fly away while beeping at me. Remember this is all happening while the boat is moving forward and you are having to get your height correct and bring the drone towards you at the speed of the boat. With all sensors disabled, it's not difficult to do and much less stressful. Just remember, that with the bottom sensors disabled, the drone will pancake itself into the deck if you land on the deck normally and come in too fast. With the bottom sensors enabled the drone senses the deck, stops for a moment and then settles down to land. With the sensors disabled it comes in as fast as you are pressing the down stick on the controller.
11. Use a neck lanyard attached to the controller. The boat is moving, the drone is ready to be hand launched or hand retrieved and you need to be able to use the controller to start the drone or stop it using only one hand. With a lanyard, I can let the controller hang in front of me while holding the drone in my right hand to launch and pressing the controller left and right sticks diagonally downwards to start the propellers. Similarly when hand catching I can easily catch with my right hand and press the down stick to stop the propellers with my left. Without the lanyard, this is not possible and you will need a crew member to help launch and catch. By doing it myself, I feel much more in control and I do not want to take the responsibility of injuring anyone else while controlling the drone on a moving platform.
12. Do not be afraid when starting the drone for hand launch and it powers up and sounds like a screaming banshee trying to escape. The drone is just trying to hover over its GPS Home Point and the boat is moving away from that point. Just make sure the drone has started correctly, let go and start going up and flying forwards slowly to keep up with the boat while you think of the first images you are about to capture. When you hand retrieve the drone, you can expect the same high powered engine noise, so just hold on tight to the landing skid and stop the drone motors by holding the left controller joystick down in the 6 o' clock position.
12. Be very conservative with flight time. I plan the flight a lot more carefully when we are underway. I think what shots I want to get and if video is included or only still images. I always want to be coming back to the boat and retrieving the drone before the Low Battery alarm starts beeping. Remember that the boat will have moved away from it's Home Point. You absolutely do not want the drone losing signal or having critically low battery and going into Return to Home mode. If it does and you don't override Return to Home you'll end up with your drone landing in the water where you were when you took off.
13. Don't try to use any of the Smart Flight modes when flying while underway. By activating Follow Me or any of the other smart modes, the drone needs to enable the onboard sensors. While it is great to put a green square around the boat and let the drone follow you while shooting video or still images, unless you are very sharp and remember to deactivate all sensors again, you will have issues when hand retrieving as per point 10 above.
14. Practice hand launching and hand retrieval while the boat is stationery or while you are on land. I practiced this a lot before trying it on LADY ROSLYN. I even walked backwards slowly on a wide open flat grassy space and hand retrieved the drone to get a feel for it while moving. Nowadays I only ever hand retrieve, whether stationery or moving. It's easier and I am continually practicing so now it is not nearly as stressful even when the boat is moving forward at over 10 knots.
15. When you fly the drone for the first time while underway, do it when the wind is light and the boat is moving slowly. Everything is much less stressful and happens more slowly. You'll build confidence this way.
That's about it for the lessons I've learned when flying the drones. What I have not done though, is give an opinion on which drone I prefer onboard and which one I use most often.
I love having 2 drones. They are both very different creatures and having two, gives us a backup incase we lose one. The one is powerful with incredible image quality, but is large. The other is really portable for when we go off the boat hiking or exploring but is less able to handle high winds and is not for the faint-hearted when hand launching and retrieving.
While acknowledging the luxury of having 2 drones onboard, which most people do not have, if you forced me to pick one of them, it would be easy.
The Phantom 4 Pro is an amazing drone to use when sailing. It can handle VERY high winds and still flies fast. The image quality is absolutely incredible.
The brand new Mavic 2 with Hasselblad camera, which has just been launched, has the same camera specs as the Phantom 4 Pro, which is very attractive feature. However, while practicing on land with the Mavic, I clipped my fingertips on the blades 3 times out of 12 hand retrievals. While it did not draw blood, the odds of injury when hand launching or retrieving a Mavic on a moving boat where I am the skipper, is just too high for me to justify using it while underway.
For me, the "overriding deciding factor" for choosing the Phantom 4 Pro as the best drone to use, is the ease and safety of hand launching and hand retrieval while underway. As can be seen in the image below taken a few minutes ago while at anchor, I can fly the drone back to the stern of LADY ROSLYN, get the drone to the correct height and slowly fly it towards me. I reach for the landing skid and hold on while stopping the propellers. At no time is my hand or arm near the spinning blades.
Below is a short video clip taken while sailing, showing some of the hand launching and hand retrieval points I have made above. You can see how easy and safe the Phantom 4 Pro is using this method. Below the video, are 3 photos taken while flying on the same flight, with Code 0 up. In the bottom image you can see me standing at the starboard stern area waving at the camera.
The images we have captured using the drones during the last 2 seasons of sailing have completely transformed the memories we have of the places we have been fortunate enough to visit.
If you are thinking of using a drone onboard your own boat and are not sure which one to buy, or how best to go about safely using the drone you already own, hopefully this blog post has helped you.
Have fun. Experiment. Prepare to have butterflies in your stomach.