Flying a drone in broad daylight is one thing, but what happens when you need to fly at night — and in the middle of the ocean? In the U.S., it’s currently illegal to fly in the evening, but my night flying experience took place on the high seas, where the rules are different. If you happen to find yourself in a situation where you need to fly at night — and can do so legally! — then the following tips should help your night missions go off without a hitch.
Photo from Eliza Muirhead
Plan your shoot, shoot your plan
I didn’t have the luxury to pre-plan when flying out on the water, but a bit of preparation is something I definitely suggest for any drone shooting. When the sun goes down, odds are you’re not going to be able to see obstacles that may get in your way, like masts of ships or icebergs. If you can, get to your location ahead of time and scout it out. Are there any threats to your flight? Make sure you know your flight path, and plan your mission to avoid surprises. It’s also wise to check your exposure. Is your subject going to be well-lit enough for your camera to pick up without too much noise?
Photo from Andy Cowell
Assume the position
Before you launch your drone, make sure you’ve got a safe, comfortable place to sit or stand where you’re not going to be worried about tripping over things while you’re flying. If you trip and fall, a wayward controller could mean an out-of-control drone. In my flights on the high seas, I flew from a very small inflatable boat called a Zodiac that was getting tossed around in the waves; I found a place I could sit with my spotter during the flights so neither of us would take a spill while flying.
Photo from Andy Cowell
Your aircraft, midnight style
Most drones allow you to turn off one set of the navigation lights. Normally it’s the forward pair (the ones that are in front of your camera). Make sure you turn these off before your flight, so the glare from the LEDs doesn’t disrupt your images. You may also elect to use black masking tape or electrical tape to cover any remaining lights that you can’t turn off. Taping everything ensures that the lights from your drone aren’t affecting your image in any way.
While you’re sticking things to your drone, you might want to look at a buoyant crash-recovery tool to add to your setup. If your drone goes down it’ll be ruined, to be sure, but at least you’ll be able to recover the airframe and possibly your footage. You can also add a waterproof tracking device for extra security.
Photo from Tim Watters
Become a navigation wizard
If you blackout your drone, then the minute it leaves your hands (or the ground) it’s going to be virtually invisible, which can be pretty scary. In the aviation world, flying by your instruments only is known as IFR, or instrument flight rules, and that’s exactly what you’re going to have to do. (Aren’t you glad you scouted your flight path beforehand?)
If you’re flying one of the entry-level drones, make sure the mobile device you’re using has its own GPS chip in it. Without GPS, you won’t know where you are in relation to the drone if you happen to move away from your takeoff point — which is almost guaranteed if you’re at sea. By using the telemetry provided to you via your control app, you can orient the drone on a map or use compass navigation. In my case, I had to choose a bearing for my drone and fly in that direction until the camera was able to resolve the light I was flying towards
Photo from Ashleigh Allam
Stick your landing
Successfully recovering your drone is the trickiest part of night flights, especially if the drone itself is blacked out! Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to make things easier. Your best bet at aiding recovery is to turn your navigation lights back on. This will help you locate your drone if it’s far away, and help you orient its direction. If you’ve somehow gotten so far out of whack that you can’t seem to get your orientation and return to base, you can initiate the auto-return sequence (RTH) to get your drone back in your neighborhood, then cancel it when it’s close. Just check that you’ve updated your actual location before you do so, in case you’re drifting or moving. And make sure you’re able to cancel the RTH before landing, or it’s likely you’ll end up with a water-soaked drone.
When flying from boats, it’s best to hand-launch and hand-catch drones, as rocking boats wreak havoc on drone sensors. Have your spotter wear a headlamp and have a third person illuminate the drone with a spotlight. This will help make sure your spotter isn’t injured when recovering the drone. Getting caught by a prop turning at 5,000 RPM is no way to end your day; proper preparation will help ensure you avoid injury.
Photo from Ashleigh Allam
Hopefully these tips start you in the right direction for flying at night on the open water. I suggest getting in plenty of stick time during daylight hours. That way, by the time you’re flying at night, your skills are second nature and you’ve got the confidence to take off.