When the phone rings in the office and it is a client wanting to do whale research or cover offshore events via drones from boats it sends our minds spinning with the possibilities. Always a very exciting prospect. Then with a thud our thoughts turn to the risk assessment. There are many added variables to consider compared to a regular flight on land.
Firstly launching and recovering is a very important aspect of operating drones from boats particularly when on board small vessels. Small vessels have very limited space. This coupled with wind, swell, roll and pitch makes not only launching difficult but launching and landing potentially hazardous. In fact the only way to either launch or recover the drone may be to hand launch and retrieve if the size of the drone permits. This will require a second person to launch and recover and possibly another on the helm to ensure the vessel does not become beam onto the swell adding to excessive movement of the vessel. The person doing the hand launching needs to have the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment. This will protect them from the rotating propellers that can cause injury. At a minimum the following must be worn.
A hand catching policy and procedure should be in place also to ensure the operation does not cause personal injury to anybody on board the vessel or involved with the operation mitigating the risk.
Another layer of risk mitigation that could be considered is to add prop guards to your drone.
On launch and recovery of the drone you need to also take into account weather the vessel will be stationary for launch and recovery or underway. The drone will not in any way take into account the fact that its landing zone is actually moving should the vessel be underway. On landing the drone will apply pitch to stay at the landing zone and possibly crash if not being hand caught. There are companies such as Planck Aerosystems who are developing technology to overcome these issues. Pitch will also need to be added by the pilot if hand catching to compensate for the speed of the vessel should it be underway.
On many drones such as the DJI range of drones the GPS home point is recorded before launch. In case of signal drop out or any other problem the drone then knows where to return to home and land. Flying drones from boats offers an interesting consideration. That being that if you launch from a boat there is a high probability if your drone were to return to home it would auto land in the water. There is an unlikely chance your launch and recovery site is in the exact same spot you launched from. Even on anchor and considering anchor swing you will not be in the exact same spot you launched. This is further exacerbated if your vessel is motoring as the drones return to home will be from the launch site which very quickly can be a distance away. Depending on the speed your vessel is moving. This is a major consideration when operating drones from boats.
Conducting Whale Observations and Research from Boats – Hover UAV
On smaller vessels there may not be the luxury of having an alternate landing site in the event of an emergency. This must be considered in the event circumstances change during flight. Will it be possible to recover the drone should the primary landing site be compromised.
All boats or ships have many hidden anomalies on board that can directly affect the operation of your drone. Be it hidden wiring or cable runs, large metal objects such as main engines or anchors. The construction of the vessel itself may play a factor as the vessel may be aluminium, steel or fibreglass. This can also create magnetic fields on board (deviation) which can directly affect signal and compass calibration making your drone fly in an unintended manner. Hover UAV experienced this when covering the trans Atlantic voyage of Yacht Express from Italy to Florida. The interference caused to the drone was from the reserve navigation and communication batteries. It was decided to move the launch site to a different location and this alleviated the problem.
Confined conditions are not ideal for drone operations off boats. Particularly if people are wondering around or entering your launch or recovery zone. It is best to have only people directly involved with the operation in the vicinity and all others need to be moved out of the immediate area and kept at a safe distance. You would not want any accidents to occur.
Obviously like any drone operation close attention needs to be made to obstructions that maybe overhead. Sailing vessels have an enormous amount of rigging, antennas and sails. Not to mention the mast and boom overhead that potentially could foul your drone. Likewise ships and large motor boats which all have VHF/HF antennas, light towers, radar arrays and satellite navigation equipment. Close attention needs to made of all overhead obstructions
Flying over the sea does not offer many of the features you could use for navigation and orientation when flying over land. Over the ocean everything looks similar making your orientation more difficult to ascertain. There is also the added factor of glare that can make your orientation difficult.
The marine environment is one of the harshest environments on earth. Corrosion occurs very quickly and can rust screws, nuts, circuit boards or any metal surface not shielded from the elements. Anti corrosion inhibitors can be used which leave a thin film over exposed components. Or perhaps a drone which has been designed for the marine environment might be a better option.
As can be seen flying drones from boats can be challenging. It does add many variables to the operation but with appropriate planning and risk mitigation in place it can be a very rewarding challenge.
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At Hover UAV we assist drone programs from conception to full implementation. We are a passionate team of experts, with diverse skill sets and backgrounds gained in sectors such as maritime, crewed aviation, defense, corporate and engineering sectors.