These tips are neither for beginner-drone operators nor for the faint of heart. In fact, flying from a watercraft has caused many people to lose their drones into the drink. That being said, some drone video scenes captured for commercial projects may necessitate the risk.
If you are in a situation where you must launch from a boat, (as a permitted whale researcher, or gathering footage for a tour company, for instance) there are several safety precautions you must implement and as many environmental and mechanical conditions you must consider.
Depending on the size of the boat, you might have to both hand launch and hand catch your Phantom. This is not recommended and is a last option. Be advised that touching a drone that is powered up is against rules of some organizations and can cause severe bodily harm. As the drone operator your primary concern is the safety of yourself and everyone else around you. Be sure you wear a hat (baseball cap or sun hat) simply so that you have a level of protection on your head. Wear shatterproof protective glasses. And bring a leather or canvas work glove to cover your catching hand. Use a strap to hold the remote controller around your neck. Hand launching and catching requires practice on land in advance. Always launch and retrieve with your arm fully extended above your head and a bit in front of you.
Permission must be granted from the captain of the boat before flying. The captain of the vessel trumps your authority. Understand this FAA rule — No operations from a moving vehicle unless the operation is over a sparsely populated area. This applies to boats as well. Know the boat. Locate all the guy wires, antennas and masts. Establish a safe landing spot before takeoff.
Once aboard the boat, there are good odds that you will have compass errors from a metal hull and possibly IMU sensor errors from any rocking motion. Take heed of all the warnings. Re-calibrate the compass and place the drone up on your GPC case, or on a wooden or fiberglass, level surface for take off. If you cannot get rid of the errors even after restarting all components, then you are probably done for the day.
Set your Phantom to “Dynamic Home Point”, in case of a “Return to Home” scenario, so that your drone will not fly back to where you took off – landing straight into the water. Also, without “Dynamic Home Point” turned on, your Phantom may hit the maximum established distance from home point and be stopped by its own geo-fence as you try to return it to your boat, which has now drifted several hundred or thousand feet with current.
The boat must not be in motion! And be very aware of the direction of the current and drift even with the boat motors off. Why? Because as soon as you throttle up, the newer Phantom quadcopters instantly lock into their GPS satellite “home position”, and while the drone is hovering perfectly locked to its coordinates, the boat may move or drift straight into it, causing a painful splashdown.
On the ocean, don’t forget to factor in the swells and rocking action of the waves. Swells in open water can be difficult to see or feel, and your boat may be rising and dropping 3-5 feet without you realizing. Before landing your drone, whether by hand catch, or on the deck, hover for maybe 15 seconds about 50 feet from the boat at about your eye level. As the Phantom is locked into its GPS position, you will soon be able to detect the drift direction and swell size so that you can plan your landing appropriately. Remember to use your safety gear and move any other passengers away from your landing zone.