I was dreaming about the Navionics chart plotter app having an updated version that integrated with BOM weather to show you the forecast on your path ahead (my dreams are all boat-related now) when the sound of my name woke me. Nicola was on watch, the sun was coming up, and she knew I’d want to see what was out there.
She was right. When I got up on deck we were surrounded by dolphins (I know, you’re probably sick of hearing about them!). You could actually hear their squeaking chatter clearly as they closed in on Kuna from every direction, for as far as we could see. Tiny bait skipped across the surface at the bow and I watched on as the dolphins quickly got their share.
We must have been going through a large ball of bait as we crossed the gulf between Wilsons Prom and Eden, sailing North for Brisbane. For the past day and night we had been sailing in between around 20 oil rigs that litter the gulf, despite the “Area To be Avoided” caution on the chart which we didn’t notice until the end of the run – whoops! None of us knew we had so many oil rigs off the Victorian coast.
With almost no wind I thought it would be a good opportunity to go for a fly with my drone, a DJI Phantom 3 Professional I call Scout.
In the six weeks I’ve had Scout the Drone I’ve already taken him to some incredible places and really surprised myself with some of the shots, many are over on my Instagram – @kahlee_andrews. I’m not a naturally creative person at all, but seeing everything from an angle you never have before makes it all look pretty incredible.
To fly from a yacht though, with no stable landing area, would require a catch and release manoeuvre. Essentially, Jason would hold Scout above his head while I throttle him upwards and tell Jason to let go – and then we hope that Scout stays in the air.
When it’s time to land, I would bring Scout in and Jason would move towards Scout to grab him from the air. This is the safest way to catch a drone as moving the drone into the person, rather than the person moving into the drone, can result in serious injury from the prop blades. I have only performed this manoeuvre a couple of times, but never from a moving yacht with a narrow window to bring the drone into due to the hanging ropes and wire rigging that surround the yacht.
Nicola and Jason prepared me for the worst with a quick Risk Assessment. “Now Kahlee, are you prepared to potentially lose Scout?”, Nicola asked. He did cost $1,700, but I’ve gotten so much value out of putting him in precarious situations already, and this would be no different. “Worth the risk”, I told them.
I set Scout up like I have many times before – attached his props, plugged my iPad into the flight controller, turned it on and then turned on Scout’s DJI intelligent flight battery. At this point the drone will search for a minimum of 10 satellites to activate the GPS positioning function which means Scout will hover in one place, even against wind and without me having to touch the controls.
Warning: GPS positioning not activated. Move away from metal objects and try again, the flight controller chimed as Scout’s flight indicator lights flashed red meaning I would be unable to take off.
I had wondered if Kuna’s cor-ten steel hull would interfere with Scout’s intelligent flight software, and turns out it does. Great, my two favourite new toys basically hate each other.
But what’s the best thing to do when experiencing technological difficulties? Turn it off, and turn it back on! So I did, this time with Jason holding Scout far out over the water away from Kuna.
It worked. I powered Scout on and throttled him up as Jason released his grasp, sending Scout hurtling upward towards the mast and rigging. Shoot, I thought, as I quickly dodged the rocking mast and cleared the boat.
We were up now, safe and flying.
It was a strange feeling – having Scout hovering but me moving away from him, although I was questioning whether his GPS positioning was malfunctioning as he seemed a bit all over the place. But that could’ve just been me.
It felt good to be flying again after being grounded for more than a week. In the couple of weeks leading up to the trip I had been flying a lot, and had even begun some manual flying (mostly crashing) of a friends’ smaller drones, so I was slowly getting better at flying without the GPS function, and more confident with what I could do with Scout.
I had already envisaged the shot I wanted to get of Kuna on the water – a manual point of interest manoeuvre which requires flying horizontally with one control stick while rotating the drone with the other to get a smooth circle around an object. In this case, a moving object. It was all going to plan, I was getting some stunning shots of Kuna surrounded by nothing but water and a sunrise on the horizon ahead.
The flight time on the DJI Phantom 3 Professional is about 23 minutes, so with 49% battery remaining I decided to bring Scout in and attempt the catch with Jason.
We clicked Kuna into neutral and Jason hung on the port side – Kuna was still being pushed along at a couple of knots though, while rolling back and forwards slightly, meaning she was anything but stationary. I had planned to bring Scout up alongside Kuna and have us come towards him as he hovered there. I tried and tried, but the plan wasn’t working. The magnetic field from Kuna’s hull must have been interfering with Scout’s GPS positioning and, for the first time, I was having to fly manually without the hover function, while also moving away from him. Every touch of the stick sent him flying one way or the other and if I backed off he would begin to drift. I was getting nervous, but with 40% battery remaining we had about 5 minutes to complete the landing before the 20% return-to-home safety kicked in, I thought…
Now having to use both control sticks at once I was no closer to figuring out how to safely bring him in to the 2m-wide horizontal space I had to work with. If I ran into a the rigging wires, or one of many ropes, Scout would go crashing into the water. And if I ran into Jason… well, we were too far from land to contemplate that.
And then, at 33% battery remaining, we all heard something I’ve never heard before.
Low battery warning. Automatically returning to home in 10 seconds, the flight controller chimed.
There was no cancel option. The countdown was happening and there was no time to question why, or how, as this had never happened before. If Scout tried to return home now he would automatically shoot up to 40m, and then come crashing down into the mast or rigging, or straight into the water as the boat moves – he wouldn’t make it.
Wide-eyed, I looked to Jason and Nicola, “Okay, we’re really going to have to catch it this time”
10…9…8… For the first few seconds I couldn’t think. I went left, then right, turned around, then left and right again – I was all over the place. When I fly the manual toy drones I will often crash as soon as I get panicky or over-confident, throttling in all the wrong places.
7…6…5… There’s no room for error this time. Relax, smooth movements. We only had one chance. I brought Scout to the height he needed to be and throttled straight back towards Jason, as smooth but as quickly as I could to close the distance before we drifted past him, but not too quickly so as not to run into Jason.
4…3…2 Jason grabbed onto the Drone’s frame and I quickly throttled him off.
My hands were shaking as we set him on the roof of the cockpit. We were all in disbelief – at both the incredible footage and photos, but also how we somehow managed to catch him in 10 seconds, from a moving boat, with a 2m opening. “Nice flying”, Jason, a commercial pilot with over 5,000 hours of flight time, commented. Oh shucks…
I got very lucky this time, but will have to find a safer system for landing, and practice a few more while Kuna is stationary.
We’re almost finished the gulf crossing between Wilson’s Prom and Eden now. Plagued with light winds, we’ve been motor-sailing a lot. This is day 4 on the water since leaving Apollo Bay. When there’s no dolphins to play with our life is reading, writing, cooking, eating, chess, cards, podcasts and planning cockpit parties for three. Literally, we planned for last night’s party the day before. It consisted of wine, cheese, salami, dip, music and Nicola reading us stories she’d written, before calling it a night around 7.30pm while I stayed up on watch until midnight. Ah, the simple life of three sailors!