Aerial avatars : What will Drones bring to yachting? Part 1 of 2

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Mainly endless tales of what their geeky crewmate (probably an engineer) has done with his drone this time. Some people seem to be missionaries for this tech while others polarize against it after enduring hours of preaching about how amazing they are. Is there a place for them in yachting?

In short, yes. Direct applications include; navigation – courtesy of pioneering drone company, Pigeon Vision, we once used one to pick our way through a reef near sunset when it was impossible to see underwater obstacles that lay in our path, it was fantastic for that purpose. Rig checks – you can perform a cursory rig check without sending someone up the mast, then decide whether a more hands on inspection is needed. Selfies by drone (dronies?) are exploding in popularity, after all, why live this amazing life if nobody knows what you’re doing and how that looks from above? Jacuzzi dronie? You know it. Masthead neknomination? Been done! There will undoubtably be more creative uses found and I wouldn’t be surprised if it became common equipment on the bridges of some yachts. The navigation function alone would be worth it. You could even use it to scout the next bay and make sure the spectator density was sufficient to allow seeing and being seen before you up anchor and head over there!

Probably their most useful niche however is as a media platform, those geeky crewmates are often so keen to fly that they’ll get their bird into the sky and shoot footage and stills of any and every crew and guest adventure. One enterprising engineer friend has produced a fully edited film shot during a superyacht race and delivered it to the guests by the time the yacht was stern to in Gustavia for the night! By all accounts guests love this and it’s a great novelty at the moment to see yourself from the air. One day soon, superyacht races might include clouds of drones orbiting every yacht! What fun. Closer to the bleeding edge, at least one Onboard Reporter in the last Volvo Ocean Race deployed his during racing to shoot their yacht on one of the calmer legs. I’m sure this will become common in the near future and its already common for people filming racing to launch and land from their chase boats to add a different POV to their edits.

This gets us to what is probably the main use for drones in yachting: aerial film and photos of racing and for charter promotional films. This is the area that affects me most directly. Until about 4 years ago, using a full sized heli was really the only option to get spectacular aerials in a secluded anchorage for that superyacht brochure or during a high speed reach in that coastal race. Now you can send a robot up there to get some of the same shots. Its not a complete replacement but it fills a gap between a chase boat that is stuck on the surface and a real Heli that is limited to about 20 feet high and 200 feet away from a yacht for safety reasons (and that invariably pisses off race crew when you hover near a mark and destroy their audio communications, many of you will know what I mean.) The UAV can get much closer in and provide a more intimate view of the yacht without annoying or endangering anyone. Its main limitation is that it’s only got a wide angle lens. A lot of the drama in heli shots comes from relating foreground to background with a long lens. Think of that shot revealing the crew as you fly over the masthead looking straight down, or two yachts planing bow to bow on a fast reach, they are key storytelling tools and these are shots that most drones can’t do yet. Long lenses bring the background closer to the foreground and make the action look closer. However, stabilizing a long lens to get a useable shot while directing your pilot is difficult and I’ve worked for years to improve this skill. But its only a matter of time until we see zoomable lenses on drones with their incredible built in stabilizers.

Another limitation is that in the last year I have used helis to shoot a few yachts that would literally be too fast for most of the affordable drones used for filming. Think of Phaedo the MOD 70 trimaran doing 35+ knots on a reach. It actually took us 12 minutes to track her down in a real heli after the start of the RORC 600 with 83 kts airspeed to hand. That race is a great example of one where you could use both drones and real helis to cover the event better than ever without blowing your heli budget sky high. Imagine if after shooting the start and first leg with a heli, as per usual, you then head to certain course marks by boat, launch a drone and add some more aerials to your footage from other points on the course while also collecting on the water chase boat footage. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the 2016 competitors has their own drone onboard! Exciting times for a race like that which is so difficult to cover due to the speeds and distances involved.

Another major plus is that with a drone, you are able to control the camera in 3d space yourself instead of having to explain your vision to the pilot. No matter how good he/she is or how long you’ve worked together there is always a delay between knowing what you want and explaining how to get it. The tradeoff is that some really good pilots come up with great shot ideas themselves. So when you’re the drone cameraman AND the pilot, you won’t have this extra input and you’ve gotta be decent enough on the sticks to make your vision come true in real life! I’m still working on my stick chops (!!!) and have had several accidents with trees, dogs and the hard, hard ground so far. Luckily, I’ve avoided salt water until now. Watch this space….

Landing any non amphibious aircraft in the water is usually quite a bad thing. Especially if you’re in it! This is a risk with any marine heli shoot. But by decreasing the number of hours I fly, using drones is probably helping to mitigate this risk. Don’t get me wrong, I love to fly and shoot more than anything but after 15 years I’ve had enough ‘moments’ to be ok with scaling my flight hours back a bit. The flying we do is low, slow and over water which is the least safe flight regime for any heli. Also, the door is off and I’m harnessed to the machine. While we’ve thought through escape procedures endlessly, I’ve never actually trained for a water landing so the risk is really unknown. In theory, if all goes well, the pilot will have time to inflate the floats, we’ll land upright and get out safely after the blades have hit the water and stopped spinning. In reality it will be a lot messier and more confusing and that freedive training I did might come in handy. So sure, it sucks when a drone lands in the sea – and that is inevitable as far as I’ve seen, but at least no one will get hurt. Losing a few grand is infinitely preferable to 2 or 3 humans and a heli landing in the water.

That said however, I have seen and heard of a few drones hitting boat’s rigs while they are racing and then landing in the water or falling onto their decks. I don’t know of anyone that’s been hit by a falling drone as yet but it is a distinct possibility that I’m keen to avoid. The main difficulty when flying them is that once its more than about 30m away it is very difficult to tell how far away from you the drone is and by extension, how far away your drone is from the yacht you’re shooting. So if you’re flying below mast height in order to shoot a moving yacht you have to rely on the onboard camera’s live feed to orient your drone to the yacht. This can mean messing up a shot as you must turn the drone to ‘look around’ if you loose orientation. This is where it pays to be using one of the more sophisticated versions where one person flies the aircraft and the other controls the camera. This type of pilot + camera operator setup will also be a must with a long lens capable drone as it would be too disorienting to fly with a narrow field of view.

So, in order to stay clear of trouble, the tricks are: not to be surprised by another boat approaching from behind and getting scooped into its rig, or wandering into the air sinking off its sails and settling into the water, or flying too far downwind to get your shots then running out of battery as you struggle back upwind to land, or having a dreaded ‘flyaway’ where you loose control for no apparent reason (often because the compass and sensors were improperly calibrated by the operator before flying), or having a cock up as you attempt to take off or land from your chase boat. . . . you get the drift, there are a LOT of ways it can go wrong. But at least with an unmanned aircraft, nobody is (probably) going to get hurt. Sure, Enrique Iglesias recently got a manicure au drone (dronicure?) but he struggled on and finished the show. The point is that lots can go wrong when flying drones but the consequences are much more tolerable than with a manned aircraft. The main risk to the owner / operator is losing an aircraft which is a cost that’s factored into our rates. Everyone eventually loses one!! Operators must also take it upon themselves to keep their subjects safe by not flying in a dangerous way near to a yacht as they’d probably (fairly) be found liable if anyone was hurt or a boat damaged by their drone colliding with it. I have already shredded a set of IKEA blinds with mine and now have nightmares about slicing through a 3di sail in the same way. I’m no sailmaker but I think that bill would probably be more than 50 Euro. Why was I flying indoors? Surely these things can sweep a room faster than a broom right?

To Be Continued……

Author: Roddy / Acquafilms

photo: Max Freling

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Roddy Grimes Graeme

Roddy Grimes Graeme

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