Why A Bird's Eye View Is Everything
You got yourself a drone/quadcopter/flying video camera
It's probably a DJI Drone. A Mavic series, right?
You read the manual (hopefully) and watch a couple of YouTube videos and you tell yourself: Pretty Easy Stuff! This drone does half the work for me!
And you'd be right! If all you were doing was filming a sweeping panorama or an overhead shot coming from and going back to LAND.
Flying quadcopters has become very much simpler over the last few years and drones have become exponentially smarter. They are now capable of taking videos that were before the realm of helicopters and aerial photographers. Now, there are ones the size of your palm with very lengthy battery lives.
It has never been easier to incorporate drone footage into your sail coaching and once you start using drone footage you can open up yet another door to drop some knowledge on those eager kids you've got sailing with you.
So we've put together a handy guide with some tips we've learned over the years of using drones - what are the better choices for coaches or interested parents, some considerations, tips, tricks, and a maybe a cautionary tale (or two).
Why Use A Drone?
Simply put, drones offer a bird's eye view. This is an invaluable perspective that you can bring to your coaching because you can lay out in front of them in real time how tactical decisions affected their race, fleet movements, etc. With aerial views you can essentially show them the entire chessboard, as well as how their sailing technique can affect them at a start, mark rounding, or throughout an entire race.
What Drone Is Best For Being Out On The Water?
There are, believe it or not, many companies offering drones now, and you can event custom make one. But no other company comes close to DJI and their series of drones. For the price, and features, they are unbeatable, at least in 2020.
The DJI Mavic series are the most popular series of drones and for good reason. Very high quality video, intelligent flying with their AI software, and long battery life makes them a powerhouse of a flying camera. Now, DJI has drones starting at USD$399 all the way to USD $20k for a top-of-the-line Matrice. Obviously we will not be looking at those, since they are astronomically expensive and huge pieces of equipment, and they are not really suited to the unique requirements of sailing coaches or enthusiasts.
As with any equipment you take out on the water, you have to start with your parameters and what qualities and features are important to you. What is your budget? Will you be flying the drone yourself? Does the drone have to fit in your bag? Will you be filming for just sailing practice or for creating content as well?
Let's also add in there the glaringly obvious risk of flying quadcopters out on the water: They can, at any time, fall out of the sky and crash into the water, and when retrieving said quadcopter, you can lose it to, well - the water.
We'll be taking a look at 3 quadcopters: The DJI Mavic Mini, the Mavic Air 2, The Mavic 2 Pro, and the DJI Phantom 4.
If Price and Size Matter Most: The Mavic Mini
The DJI Mavic Mini is a seriously awesome little drone. Its light, its super portable, and has amazing battery life. Plus, for the complete package with extra batteries, retails at USD$499. It can take video as well as stills, carries some of the intelligent features of it's larger cousins, and because it is sub-250g in weight does not require you to register it to the FAA (in the United States). And, if you lose one to the water, you are replacing 300 dollars worth of drone, instead of 1500 or more. Not to mention the thing carries the same footprint of an iPhone 11. No seriously, take a look
A Major Downside To The Mini is it's weight. Because it is a light and small drone, wind speed really affects flight time and characteristics and we've found that it wanders A LOT more than it's bigger contemporaries. This means you'll have to pilot it manually more than its stronger, more intelligent cousins. Through our testing, we've found that effective max wind speed for this drone is about 12 knots, anything more than that and you risk it flipping over mid air and falling into the water, or worse, onto an Opti.
But, if you keep to light winds, and don't mind manual piloting this little thing, its a great addition to your coaching kit
The Goldilocks: The Mavic Air 2
|The DJI Mavic Air 2|
The original Mavic Air was a good effort by DJI to make a lightweight but seriously capable drone. With the second iteration, they've managed to pack 90% of the Mavic Pro into a teeny drone that can fly for half hour on a single battery, and follow along on pre-set courses that you give it.
Seriously, this thing has everything in balance. Can it handle 10-15 knots? Check. Can it take high quality video? Check. Can I preset the flight pattern and forget about it? Check, Check, Check-o-rama.
Retailing at $988 for the Fly More combo, we are now getting into the expensive territory, but the Mavic Air 2 is our recommendation for coaches because it has the main intelligent flight feature of the Mavic Pro and Phantom, a more palatable price point, and can handle 75% of the breeze you may encounter. You won't regret spending the extra cash over the Mavic Mini.
If Video Quality Is The Absolute Priority
|They kind of all...look the same|
The Mavic Pro. The original foldable wonder drone. Then DJI decided to blow it out of the park with the Mavic 2 Pro. This drone is seriously capable - can throw out movie-quality video and fly in 20 knots with almost no issue. And the price reflects it! We are now in the USD $2k range, wherein the Mavic 2 Pro will set you back USD$1899 for the Fly More combo. If price is not a primary concern, and you just want that top dollar image quality, look no further than this quadcopter.
Just remember, if you drop it, you're out two thousand bucks!
If You Absolutely Must Fly In Heavy Winds
You're a serious coach and want to be able to bring to your kids footage from that windy practice where they were all floundering and you just have to show them how to better hike. That means you want the Phantom Pro. This thing is seriously capable and as you can see in the video above, if it can handle chasing down a Volvo 65 at full speed through the Atlantic, it can handle flying above your sailing practice.
Pro: It can fly in stiff breeze - 20 knots is a piece of cake
Con: It's the biggest consumer drone DJI makes and will not fit in your bag.
Pro: It has fantastic 4k resolution
Con: It costs almost two thousand dollars.
Retailing at $1599, it's actually cheaper than the Mavic 2 but has slightly less features and is much larger than the Mavic 2. This is a drone that you'd probably get for the club and use sparingly. But you'll be able to fly it in 0-22 knots with no problems, we'd reckon that in steady conditions it'd even fly into 25 knots in experienced hands.
Buying Used vs New
You can save a lot of money if you buy older drones like the original Mavic Pro, or buying second hand, but you should be aware that like with anything, it comes with it's downsides. Older drones don't have the best battery life, especially if they are second-hand.
If you are looking at a used drone, do your research and ask about flight hours - a serious drone operator will be able to tell you that and if they are able to tell you, that's an indicator that is has been well-treated. It wouldn't be a bad idea to pick up some new OEM batteries for your second-hand drone as the lifespan of the battery will be much greater than a used battery.
Dive into eBay to find great deals, or check around your local listings to find used drones.
Pro-Tip: Stay away from water damaged refurbished drones!!
Whatever drone you land on (see what we did there?) know that to make it worthwhile, you have to
a) Use it
b) Use it
c) Use it!!
There's no point in shelling out up to $2k if all you're going to do is stash it in the closet and forget about it. Incorporate it into your coaching and sailing practices, and your kids will gain from the perspective it brings.
Remember that you'll need extra batteries and for all of these drones, utilize your phone as the view screen and "brains" - DJI drones use the GO 4 app in order to operate them. You'll also need memory cards - specifically Micro SD Cards - in order to record the video onto the drone itself.
Take a look at our Video Debrief Series to learn how to incorporate video into your debriefs, and how to edit video together. In the time of social distancing, creating video feedback for your sailing group has never been more important!
See you on the next tack