BoatUS Special Report


Game Of Drones

By Nicole Palya Wood
Published: August/September 2014

State legislatures and the FAA wrestle with the myriad applications of drones entering our everyday lives, and how they should be regulated.

Photo of a HeliPal DJI Phantom 2
Photo: DJI

In the past, if you wanted a great aerial shot of your boat racing along in open water, you needed a helicopter, but not any more. Now, boaters are turning to drones to capture their action shots. Take Eric Winberry, who sails a 1971 Grampian G26 in the Great South Bay of Long Island, New York. "Recently, while sailing with a few friends, we brought the drone with the GoPro HD camera with us," he said. "My buddy had purchased it for aerial shots he uses to sell waterfront properties, and with the GoPro attached, it takes amazing video and pictures you could never get, even from the mast."

These days, you can purchase a drone, also called an unmanned aerial system, online at Brookstone for about $328, and get 720-pixel-quality aerial video of your boat sent live to your Android or iPhone. Spend about twice that and get one like the HeliPal DJI Phantom 2 with 1,000-meter range and GPS. It's aerial photography, intelligence gathering, and hobbyist fun, all wrapped up into one controversial little package. If progress continues in this area, Amazon may even be able to deliver your new drone via drone to your doorstep.

Aerial photo of a powerboat
Photo: Jim Raycroft
Aerial photos and videos using drones have become popular among professionals and
amateur enthusiasts, alike. The potential use for drones in the boating industry is
extensive, but with rapid technological progress comes unintended consequences.

In 2012, President Obama signed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization Act, opening America's skies to commercial drones for the first time. Used by the military for years, drones are governed by the FAA and range in wingspan from the equivalent of a model airplane all the way up to a Boeing 737. The almost unlimited commercial, recreational, and law-enforcement applications for these aircraft, along with their cost efficiency, have quickly brought the issue of privacy vs. protection to the forefront on Capitol Hill, and blurred the lines between the public's expectation of privacy and support for national security and crime protection.

Drones At Work

Although most people associate drones with military use, their utility in everyday life is expanding exponentially, particularly in the public sector. State and local law enforcement are using drones to add needed "manpower" to their marine divisions, while drones with thermal-imaging technology are being used to help in hostage situations, during bomb threats, and when officers need to pursue armed criminals.

Drones can assist in fighting fires and in search-and-rescue missions, reporting back critical information while placing fewer first responders in harm's way. Healthcare workers can deliver needed medicine, antidotes, or vaccines to people in hard-to-reach areas via drone.

NOAA is testing drone capabilities for use in fisheries management and enforcement. They've run trials with a drone model called the Puma AE to do seabird and marine debris surveys, as well as to improve hurricane tracking, and to patrol and enforce laws prohibiting the taking of illegal or out-of-season fish and game. Oil companies are using drones to patrol their offshore oil rigs to check for intruders, vandalism, and leaks.

Even the outgoing USCG Commandant, Admiral Bob Papp, reported to Congress that the entire fleet of new National Security Cutters will be equipped with drones, as will many of the larger search-and-rescue boats. USCG Capt. Tony Hahn told BoatUS, "During search-and-rescue cases, these cutter-based drone systems will reduce search time, as well as provide advance en route and on-scene rescue assistance for responding helicopter and boat crews, enhancing planning, safety, and successful outcomes. These are all positive impacts to recreational boating safety."

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