I recently took a hiatus to Jamaica Beach, TX with my wonderful wife (and my drones) and spent four relaxing days in a condo right next to the beach. I took with me my Nikon DSLR as always, but this trip was a first for my drone. We think of ‘the beach’ (choose any one that you like) and we think of the sun, surf, and sand and for many drone enthusiasts, beaches are an entirely new stage of exploration. However, while temptations run wild in what you can do with your drone, we need to consider the variables and consequences that accompany such endeavors.
Caution For Those Around You
The most important thing you should consider is the rules and regulations that apply to the particular beach you’ll be visiting and/or the town or city within which you’ll be flying. Populated areas are a major no-fly zone as any technical failure could injure someone on the ground, however, there are many beaches that are restricted to public access and make for a perfect stage where you can focus all attention on your flying and the scenery. If secluded beaches cannot be found, early morning or late evening flights would likely find very few visitors and even provide for some beautiful sunrises and sunsets. CASA (Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority) is a government body that regulates Australian aviation safety. It requires a 100-foot buffer zone from any human activity to ensure public safety in the event of a mission failure.
Did I mention seagulls? Don’t consider a resting flock of seagulls (ornithologically speaking) to be a nice subject and attempt to film them from overhead. When one takes off, they ALL do and you’ll find yourself in a bird strike that not even Sully Sullenberger could survive. However, don’t worry about one attacking your drone. I have yet to see it happen.
Make sure your drone is insured! A simple drone insurance policy can cover accidental damages (including water), and flyaways. As a DJI drone owner, I have a one-year policy through DJI covering two replacement drones – one at $49 for accidental damage and one at $205 for that gut-wrenching fly-away (should it ever happen). I CAN’T stress this enough as my new drone crashed into a pond before I acquired insurance and the repairs cost me $350. Insurance could have saved me $300.
As with anywhere else you fly, always make sure to do a pre-flight check that includes:
- Weather and wind
- Batteries on controller and drone are fully charged
- Make sure firmware is updated
- Calibrate settings including compass, GPS, and RTH
- Check all prop screws to make sure they’re tight. If something goes awry and your
drone makes a water crash, there may be no retrieval.
- Remove gimbal cover
- SDRAM chip
When possible, planning your shots ahead of time can save you precious battery time and allow you to focus on acquiring the best footage while airborne.
As oceanic wind currents can be unpredictable, another essential tool with which to arm yourself is a UAV forecast app that informs you of current flight conditions including wind speeds (at 50 and at 250 feet), visible locked satellites, and the Kp value - the geomagnetic storm index measuring solar flares that can corrupt GPS (Global Positioning System) signals. Your RTH (Return To Home) coordinates rely on GPS, so make certain to update your home coordinates before takeoff, however, reliance upon RTH diminishes when flying over water – especially in a moving boat.
Flying Over Water
When launching from a moving boat, you may have established your home coordinate but once you move to another location, you’ve left that home setting behind you and if it is not updated, an RTH incident could cause your drone to return to that location and make a nasty water landing. Your drone may also experience some confusion when flying close to the water. The reflective properties of the water’s surface can fool a drone’s GPS into initiating an unplanned water landing. Another safety measure to prevent water crashes is to calculate your return time when flying downwind and when air currents
are stronger, allow 60% of your battery to make the upwind return home. Whenever possible, plan a downwind return. Also check local geo zones (portions of airspace where drone operations are facilitated, restricted or excluded) to avoid
Keeping It Clean
Most of us who frequent beaches along the U.S. coasts also know their salty environment - A nefarious enemy of many metals and circuit boards much like the ones found in drones. Try to prep for flight before arriving at the beach or designate a ‘clean space’ at the beach (preferably your car). Perhaps the most important accessory you should purchase first is a hard-shelled safety case to protect your gear from sand. I always bring a can of compressed air to clean out the gimble, battery cavity, and air intakes – actually EVERYTHING on the drone and RC to remove particulate matter once I’m done flying, then wipe them down with a clean damp cloth. If you’ve practiced, launch and land your drone by hand (this takes a LOT of practice!) to avoid sand and water spray.
Some habitual practice, planning, and prevention will ensure the safety of people around you, the well-being of your drone(s), and your overall enjoyment of experiencing a beautiful shooting site. Flying a drone is a stimulating hobby that requires great responsibility while yielding incredible rewards. Happy flying!!