November 26, 2014

Sailboat drone 101: How to fly a drone from your boat

updated: 8/25/2016 


Ok, you've decided you're going to learn to fly a drone from the deck of your boat.


Good call!

Combining a boat and a drone is an exciting endeavor. You can take photos of your boat from angles that would previously require a helicopter. You can also capture outrageously scenic video of the surrounding area.

However, you want to do this without bothering others and without damaging your drone. In this article, I will walk you through the process of learning how to fly a drone from a boat.

Here is video of a practice launch from my sailboat.

(video above is compressed to fit on page, the raw video footage has high resolution: 1080x720)

How to fly a drone from your boat.


Practice flying your boat drone while stationary in calm waters.

Drop anchor in a quiet cove that is not in a restricted air space. Choose a light wind day. Wind is an issue. Practice on a day when winds are 5 mph or less. You don't want to challenge your drone with high winds at the beginning of your training. Each model of drone will be able to handle wind differently. Lower end models tend to get thrown around more.

What's the best drone for sailing?

best drone for boating
Ryan launching the DJI phantom 2 Vision + from the deck of my boat.

Here, we are using the DJI phantom 2 Vision +. 

That was our first drone. I've since upgraded to a newer model. But I will always have love for the 2+.

In my opinion, the DJI phantom remains the best drone for sailing. I felt that way when I first wrote this post in 2014 and I still feel this way in 2016. The GPS lock is great, it withstands wind, it can fly at a good distance from the controller...

I just returned from a trip to the Columbia River and got excellent drone video with a more recent model, the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced Quadcopter Drone

The Phantom 4 is already out, but I've heard they are still working out the bugs. Most people have no issue with Phantom 3, plus its much cheaper...

The phantom may be too nice of a drone to be learning to pilot from a boat. You run the risk of losing a high end model in the ocean.

That said, the advantage to practicing with this higher end drone is 2-fold. First of all, it takes incredible photos/video. Secondly, it has GPS based navigation, so it can hold a steady position. This makes for easy flying.

But do yourself a favor, don't fly your drone from a boat in heavy weather - until you've got the hang of it..

how to fly a drone from a boat
holding a locked GPS position

Is it legal to fly a drone in public waters?


Okay, your boat is on anchor and the wind is light. You're ready to launch the drone from your boat.

As mentioned, first make sure you are not in restricted air space. Often, waterways and coastlines are near flight paths for commercial airplanes or for coast guard, military or other officialdom. You do not want to bother these people or risk an incident with real aircraft.

I have found that this page is an easy way to determine the location of No Fly Zones near your location. Additionally, you can check this FAA link to keep up with the latest federal rules for drones.

Even if you are not in a restricted air space, you want to be conscious of not bothering people. People go to the water to relax. Some people enjoy watching drones, but many people do not. Don't be annoying with your drone. Fly away from people and don't creep people out by flying near them with the drone camera pointing at them. Common sense and human decency go a long way with this activity.

flying a drone from a boat
verifying the connection between drone and controller before launch
Make sure all batteries are topped off and the link between drone and controller is set. If you lose connection with the drone over water, it will probably splash down in the sea.

learn to fly a drone from a boat
the carrying case for DJI phantom, with the batteries topped off

phantom 4 over water
ready to launch

Be a team

Have one guy, let's call him the drone pilot, be in charge of controlling the drone. Have the other guy, let's call him the captain, be in charge of managing the boat. The captain should also be ready with a giant fishing net. This is good to have nearby in case the drone almost returns to the boat, but actually returns a few feet from the boat. With a big net you can scoop the drone from the air just before it drops into the water.

Or, if the sailing drone is fitted with some homemade water landing gear, you can scoop the drone from the water before its electronics are fried (skip to last 10 seconds of this video link to see the homemade landing gear in action).

flying phantom over water
fishing net ready for a quick 'drone overboard' situation
Then, go fly the drone cautiously. Make a quick loop around the boat. Get comfortable, get confident.

best drone for sailing
my sailboat seen 40 feet above the starboard beam

drone sailboat
looking west to the Pacific Ocean (photo credit: Ryan Petterson)

Practice retrievals in light conditions 


Finally, practice retrieving the drone from your boat. Boats often have standing rigging, spars, antennae and fishing poles to negotiate.

First try to remove as many of these obstructions as possible. Then, launch and retrieve from the part of the boat that is furthest from these obstructions.

And, most importantly, keep a giant fishing net nearby. If the drone is just out of hands reach and the wind picks up. It's nice to reach for it with the net.

boat drone
the captain secures the drone, while the drone pilot works the controller

Here, I've cleared all halyards, lines and fishing poles from my cockpit to allow for an unobstructed landing space for my sailboat drone.

The only remaining obstruction was the backstay.

Okay, this is enough to think about for now. I will be posting the video from the Columbia River soon.

Stay tuned...


Captain Curran said...

good question -
you can find third party stuff online

Anonymous said...

you talked about not flying in restricted airspace... from the pictures it looks like you're about 2 miles as the crow flies max from san diego international. current rule is no drones within 5 miles of an airport. San Diego is tough because no matter where you go, you're within 5 miles of an airport, unless you're 5+ miles offshore.

Captain Curran said...

that is true, we are within 5 miles of an airport - my drone guy read that if the drone is kept below a certain height, at a certain distance from an airport - then there is no issue.. I'll check to see if that is still a stipulation.

Unknown said...
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Troy Flores said...
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Unknown said...

nice post

Unknown said...

Taking off with a drone from a boat can be tricky, but landing the same on the boat, that's when the party starts! :) I have never tried that but would love to give it a shot. Good thing you had the "Drone overboard" tool :))) It is amazing how people find new ways to use drones every day, isn't it? I recently read an article talking about drone uses and you wouldn't believe what purposes drones have today! You can find out what I'm talking about here:

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Thomas@Drones said...

How much does it cost to have one like this? Thanks.

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