Nick Burnham column: How I finally got to grips with the risky world of drone flying

Taking off is fairly easy, and I was able to get some brilliant footage of the boat under way. All that remained was to land it…

Over a decade ago, I entered the scary world of self employment. Like any business, some ideas worked and some didn’t. I had a brilliant idea for syndicating boat test articles.

It made no sense, I reasoned, for magazines in different countries to each send one person to do a review when I could write and photograph a boat test and sell it as a complete package worldwide for translation. I’d sell it for a third of the normal cost but to ten magazines, earning three times as much. Brilliant!

I spent months collating and talking to boat magazine editors around the globe, all of whom were hugely enthusiastic and I even had a little success, with tests published in Japan, Italy, America and more. But ultimately the enthusiasm wasn’t matched by enough regular takers.

Another grand scheme was photography. If I could supply words and pictures, I’d be hot property (almost no one did this). I invested in professional camera equipment and training, got myself to a commercial standard and on this occasion was proven correct. It was a successful formula.

My next cunning scheme was aerial photography. Get proficient and it would be a goldmine! Well, that was the theory. The first obstacle was the frankly absurd level of qualification needed to fly a drone commercially at the time.

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That hurdle cleared and a suitable drone purchased (and christened Biggles) it was time to fly. Operating off land was always flawless. From a boat however…

Every time, something seemed to go wrong, which was nail-biting with almost £2,000 worth of equipment aloft! I never did become sufficiently confident to get serious about marine drone photography, and with my next scheme, the Aquaholic YouTube channel, going well, the drone was grounded. Until recently…

We had a charter to film for Aquaholic, and I knew that aerial photography would massively enhance it. Also, drones had become smaller and cheaper, and regulations easier.

A purchase was made, a DJI Mini2, christened Algy. I managed one flight before the charter, taking off from my garden for a swoop around the neighbourhood.

The next launch was from the foredeck of a Sunseeker 76 Yacht! Taking off is fairly easy, and I was able to get some brilliant footage of the boat under way. All that remained was to land it.

In theory this is simple. Hover directly over the landing site and descend until back on terra firma. In this case, even in neutral, ‘terra firma’ was moving surprisingly quickly. Then there’s the sensors. If it detects you’re too low, and you’re not actually descending, it panics and fires itself back up into the air!

So coming low and then positioning doesn’t work (there’s no way to turn those sensors off). I had to seriously commit. I positioned the drone just in front of the boat and, as it slid beneath, hit the ‘down’ joystick.

The sunbed I’d been hoping for slipped by and the drone narrowly missed the table before touching down on the settee that followed. A messy landing, but we had it back!

First published in the December 2022 issue of MBY.

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