Drones on sailboats

I’ve been flying quadcopters, more commonly now called drones, for about 5 years. Early on they were more of a fun hobby to try to learn, and less about quality pictures and video. In the last few years, that has completely changed, and you can now find drones in use for legit movies and photography all over the place. I have lots of photos and videos I’ve taken with mine, but I have had a tough time figuring out a way to do it on the sailboat with the size and complexity – until now with the Mavic Pro.

There are beautiful vistas and opportunities while sailing, and the drone would be fantastic to include in my toolkit. The Mavic is small enough to be out of the way, and can be taken off and landed very easily compared to the larger systems I’ve had – even on a sailboat.

Lummi Island Ferry terminal from DJI Phantom 4 drone

I’ve flown a lot from land, even out over water, but being able to take the drone on the boat, and fly from wherever I am would be fantastic.

I’ve seen a lot of other people using drones from boats, but they’re generally on a power boat which don’t have rigging and other bits to get caught up in. Laura & Kevin over on Riveted have shot some spectacular video and photos with their drone, and I’m looking forward to being able to do the same!

A few weeks ago I lost my first drone – a beautiful DJI Phantom 4 Pro. I’ve crashed a number of times, but I’ve never had one fly away or crash somewhere I couldn’t retrieve them. The video above was stitched together with some of the low-resolution footage I could retrieve from the lost unit while it sat 200′ up in a pine tree. You can see the crash at the end of the video.

So it was time to look for a replacement, and while I have had my share of ordering nightmares and issues with DJI, they are the industry leader right now, and have the best features and hardware.

The Mavic Pro is one of their newest and smallest drones, and had quite a wait list, but I was lucky enough to get one in a couple of weeks. I chose the Fly More bundle which included a bunch of extras.

On first glance, this thing is tiny, and an engineering marvel. It starts as a small shoe-sized hunk of plastic, and folds out into a fully fledged drone!

Mavic Pro size

You can get a sense for the size of the thing – I can hold it easily in my hand. Compare this to the large oversized backpack (near a small airline carry-on) that I’m used to with standard drones, and all the weight and setup required. The Mavic is so small, and can be unpacked and in the air so fast it makes my head spin.

Everything has it’s place…

The carrying case holds the drone, remote control, two spare batteries (plus one in the drone itself) spare props, and cables. I can’t fit the chargers in the bag, but with 3 x batteries with a flight time of ~25 minutes each, I have a solid hour-plus of flight time before having to put a battery on a charger.

The fly more kit includes:

  • Drone
  • Remote control
  • Carrying case
  • 3x batteries
  • 10x props
  • Standard charger
  • 4 battery charging stand
  • Car charger
  • USB battery connector thingy

That’s basically all you need for a decent photo or video shoot without having to buy anything else. More batteries are pretty inexpensive, but the kit comes with a car and AC charger, so you can rotate through the three batteries while having one on charge at any time.

Folding props

The engineering that DJI put into this makes it possible to be so small and compact. The props even fold in half to save space.

Camera and gimbal

Even with this small package, the camera is still really good quality – 12MP still photos, and up to 4K video footage, all stabilized by a pretty awesome gimbal. For my purposes, which is mostly on the photo side, and definitely not for Hollywood movies, the quality loss from something like the bigger DJI Phantom series is a completely acceptable trade off – especially for the reduction in size and quick setup.

Sensors

The Mavic has similar forward looking and bottom sensors to avoid obstacles, hold over points on the ground, and auto land easily.

These sensors are also used for some pretty cool features, including several that I think could circle the sailboat while we are underway even without my input (trace, profile, spotlight), as well as tripod and selfie modes that could be really unique perspectives for photography while on the water.

Controller

The controller is equally compact, and unfolds both antennas and holding arms for your phone. Your phone is used for real time 1080/720p video from the drone for up to 4.3 miles away (you should never fly that far away), as well as control of the photo/video settings, along with tons of other items. This is the same interface I’m used to from bigger DJI drones, but with a smaller screen, and higher quality video (strangely enough).

The controller itself should be standard with bigger drones – the flight characteristics, battery info, speed, RPM of props and a ton of other info is displayed constantly. I can’t tell you how many times I have had the DJI iOS or Android app crash while flying, and have been completely blind until things are back up and running.

Three battery AC charger

Simple way to charge all three batteries.  Only charges one at a time though.

Car charger

The car charger is supposed to charge the batteries faster, which will be nice to use on the boat off the battery bank if needed.

USB power

There’s also a little bit of plastic you can connect to a battery which allows for 2x USB charging ports. Marketing materials say they could be used for charging your phone or other devices while out flying, or even the controller if it’s low. A nice touch!

Cliff and valley near family cabin – taken with DJI Phantom 3

I’m looking forward to taking beautiful photos and videos like the one above from one of my previous drones, but off of the sailboat and around Puget Sound!

About Steve Mitchell

I live in Seattle, WA and love sailing, technology, & playing and composing music. I started playing the piano when I was 3, and ended up figuring out many other instruments along the way. I’m an avid sailor and have a 2000 Beneteau 311 named Grace, and sail it whenever and wherever I can.

  • Adam Hyde

    Steve, Thanks for sharing. I had my hands on a Mavic at Christmas here in Vancouver and I wanted one so badly! Will be interesting to get your experience using it off the boat. Is there a safe mode that stops it from trying to auto-land on the water? Would be nice if it stayed 5ish feet up for retrieval as the boat is moving…

    • Steve Mitchell

      I don’t think there’s anything that will prevent it from happily landing on water, and all of the previous drones I’ve used off of the boat (with difficulty) have had the return to home problem. Boat moves, GPS location for home doesn’t, drone goes back and tries to land on an open patch of water!

      The good news is that DJI has added a feature in the last year to re-center the home position even after the drone has left, so in the event the boat moves, you can update it.

      I plan on hand catching the Mavic since it’s so small, and a lot of other people have had great results with this. The Phantom and Inspire were so big they were super scary trying to hand catch!

  • David

    Thanks for the article! You’re right, the Mavic Pro is just so convenient and easy to carry that it just makes it amazing! The only other drone that can match it for compactness is the Spark and that’s no where near as good in terms of, well pretty much everything.

    I’m looking into getting a drone to use when ever i take the boat out and came across this article – http://www.droneriot.com/best-drones-for-sailing/ which also suggests the Mavic Pro.

    Think i’m going to take the plunge, thanks again Steve for the helpful article.

    • Glad I could help! Let me know how it goes, or better yet, some videos or photos from your drone flights!

%d bloggers like this: