Industry » Features » Drone Operations: Aide Memoire for Yacht Crew

Drone Operations: Aide Memoire for Yacht Crew

Drones v2

Christmas 2015 will bring us the opportunity we have all been dreaming about  – the chance to introduce more regulations, more policies and more procedural check lists into our daily lives on board and in management offices. Loud cheers!

Fast forward to January 2016. You are working on a yacht, you’ve bought yourself a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), aka drone, for Christmas, and you want to launch it from on board. What is the captain going to say? Or, you are the captain, and one of the crew wants to launch a drone from on board. What are you going to say? And why is this question of such topical relevance?

Consider that smart phones and designer watches are now so commonplace that they are yesterday’s news. Drones (typically quadricopters in our scenario) are the new must-have item, and because of their myriad potential uses, they are not just toys-for-boys, as model aircraft and helicopters have been in the past. Drones are for everybody who wants to be connected with everybody else on social networks, and has $100 to $500 to spend.

In elaborating this contention, there will be several references in this article to the situation with drones in the U.S., which has been leading the field. The Fortune 500 companies are not dabbling in model aircraft, and neither are Silicon Valley start-ups; but both groups are pouring money into drone development. Drones’ versatility in flight means that they can be positioned where no other ground- or air-based vehicles can go.

Big Data, Big Money

This astounding dexterity is demonstrated by the newly-hatched sport of drone racing in underground car parks in some US cities. Under the command of their goggle-wearing pilots, the smallest drones on the consumer market are raced around the support columns and under the vehicles parked there, sometimes for serious prize money from local sports sponsors. But this amazing airborne acrobatics capability per se is not what is driving the big money.

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What is exciting is the potential of exploiting this aerobatic capability to capture and transmit data from places previously inaccessible, and at speeds thousands of times faster than could be achieved by conventional surveying and measuring techniques. On this account, the drone equipment manufacturers often refer to themselves as being in the business of big data, not small UAVs. And data gathering can be a minefield for the unwary.

Drones are already in commercial use in the U.S. to gather data on crop ripening, geological surveys, close-up inspection of hard-to-access civil engineering structures, wildfire spotting, police surveillance, and a host of other uses. To a lesser extent they are used in similar roles in Europe, China and elsewhere.

Numbers and Usage

In many cases, registration of the UAVs, and strict regulations regarding operating parameters, apply.

In 2010 the U.S. Federal Aviation Agency estimated that 15,000 small civilian drones might be in use by 2020. In early November this year, a panelist on the Bloomberg TV channel reported an estimate by the US makers of small “toy” drones that by year-end a total of 700,000 drones for recreational use will have been sold in the USA alone. Globally, that figure is going to exceed 4.3 million, a 167% increase in two years, according to the Washington Examiner edition of November 17th this year. The newspaper quotes a US venture capital firm as its source in postulating that the US owns 35% of the drone market, followed by Europe with 30%.

These numbers, plus the current “buzz” associated with the exciting uses to which drones can be put, plus the general keenness of yacht owners and yacht crew to be up-to-date with the latest in communications and data-sharing technology, mean that 2016 is likely to be the year when drones start to appear as standard equipment on superyachts.

The type of drone which we would normally expect to see on board would probably fall into the “toy” or “recreational” category. There are several utilitarian uses which can be envisioned:

(i) Publicity and promotional exposure – currently the basic and most widespread use of drones in the recreational world is for photography. Drones can get close in situations where helicopters can never go, and do so without interfering with the subject or scene being filmed. Drones offer a new dimension in printing brochures and producing action video for a yacht’s website.

(ii) Surveying - the International Hydrographic Office estimates that less than 10% of our oceans are charted to modern hydrographic standards. Today, superyachts constructed to Ice Class are being taken by adventurous owners to barely explored Arctic and Antarctic realms. At another extreme, expedition yachts are exploring remote areas of the Pacific in quest of virgin dive sites, cautiously navigating areas first charted by Captain Cook, with few if any official data added since. A GPS-equipped drone could provide accurate information regarding the nature and positions of uncharted, or inaccurately charted, navigational dangers in special areas.

(iii) Surveillance - in areas which are prone to piracy, such as the Horn of Africa, the Malacca Straits, and parts of West Africa, a drone would be useful in investigating from a safe distance suspicious vessels at the extreme edge of the radar or visual boundaries.

drone over country side

(iv) Rescue - a drone could be used to assess a distress situation and provide important information (number of survivors, surface or underwater obstructions, etc.) prior to commencing a rescue operation. It might even be possible to deliver a messenger line or other equipment to a distressed vessel in preparation for a towing or rescue attempt.

(v) Staying 'connected' - what drones can capture and broadcast over social media far exceeds the sharing experience of a series of stick-taken selfies. If you want to keep up with your peers and sustain the interest of your followers, you’d better start building your personal library of “Wow” drone images.

There are great opportunities here for everybody on board to dream up all kinds of useful and fun things to do with their drones. Today in the yachting world there are companies selling drone videos of Bucket races. Spectator drones are appearing at these events, and voluntary Codes of Conduct have been developed, such as keeping a set minimum distance from the start line.

In the highly competitive worlds of yacht and dinghy racing, drone footage has been used to study own performance and competitors’ tactics. In the wider world there is already a Dronestagram site for sharing spectacular photo and video images that cannot be taken by any other device. (Dronestagram is most popular in the US, UK and France).

But there is a dark side to the story. Drones have already been used in ways that are sometimes stupid and sometimes malevolent. Some of these episodes are referred to later in the article, and they illustrate the need to properly assess the implications of the advent of drones in the yachting world. Unfortunately, we all know what “assessment” implies: more paperwork.

In this context, the question is again posed - if a crew member asks to launch a drone from on board, what will be the answer? What if the owner brings a drone on board, or a charter guest brings one, and they ask (or don’t ask) to fly the drone from the yacht, what will be the response?

We have other toys already on board, such as bicycles or water slides or Personal Water Craft (PWC). If somebody wants to use one of the yacht’s bicycles, the protocol may be simply to give an overview of the safer parts of town for bicycling, with a request to wear a helmet.  Water slide use may be governed by a simple maxim that the crew rig and test it strictly to manufacturer’s instructions, and a standing order that a rescue swimmer be on stand-by during use.

FunAir slide2

More formally, all yachts operating PWC, whether private or commercial, should have written policies and procedures in place, covering training, conformity with local rules regarding speed and boundaries, helmets and PFDs, safety boat, etc, etc. Where do drones fit in?

In seeking to shape the response, the first place to look for guidance is at the applicable national regulations. As background to these regulations, both extant and proposed, Shawn Engbrecht listed a few examples of rogue drone behaviour in his OnboardOnline article of 25th September 2015. 

Such instances vary from the uncivil, like annoying the spectators at sports events, to breaches of privacy, to criminal activity such as drug smuggling, to dangerous close encounters with commercial aircraft during landing or take-off. And drones are intentionally sent up, but may accidentally come down, raising more safety concerns.

Drone Attacks

There is another set of more serious issues which have attracted the nervous attention of national governments’ security services.

Back in 2013 German law enforcement personnel raided Islamic militants believed to be actively plotting drone attacks. The US Department of Homeland Security and its European counterparts have established work groups to assess the risks of terrorist attacks using drones, and possible counter measures.

Various private firms are working on drone detection and threat analysis systems using inter alia radar, thermal cameras, infrared cameras and acoustic sensors. But the companies acknowledge that the initiative remains with rogue drone operators, and current defenses are imperfect.

In France, The Secretariat for Defence and National Security has approached the nation’s hi-tech firms to investigate drone counter-measures such as high pressure water cannons and electronic jamming of their controls, again conceding that “no immediate solution exists, either in France or abroad.”

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Given this vulnerability, and the obsession of ISIS with large scale brutal violence, security experts’ biggest fear is of ISIS adoption of the Iranian Navy’s swarm tactics, using low-tech in big numbers (lots of fast, lightly armed small craft) to overcome an opponent’s (the US Navy) hi-tech advantages.

Such tactics would probably fail anyway against the firepower of a US aircraft carrier group, but applied in a civilian context they could be devastating. A swarm attack on an open-air stadium venue by 10 or so drones carrying small canisters of harmful chemicals, or small explosive charges, would result in immediate casualties, followed by a second wave of victims crushed in a panic rush to the exits.

It could all be captured live by cameras on one of the drones, posted immediately on social media for propaganda purposes, and nobody would know where to look for the drone operators. From rented apartments, from hotel rooms or rented vehicles, the drone pilots could watch their crafts’ line of sight flight as far as the stadium walls, then direct them to release their loads and crash, and be long gone before the first emergency responders arrived on scene.  

Drone Legislation

The following four examples of drone legislation, consequent upon the background considerations elaborated above, show the need for caution in approving and supervising drone operations from a yacht.

In mid-October 2015 the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) hastily assembled a task force to study the issue of registration of drones.

Among questions being considered by the task force are: a fine for non-registration up to $75,000 plus possible criminal penalties up to $250,000 or 3 years in jail; retrospective application of registration to pre-existing drones; whether registration would be via a physical sticker or electronic broadcast signal; whether there should be exemption for “toys” and small drones at present considered a low safety risk; and whether operator licensing should be extended to some recreational drone flying,  as is currently required for commercial use.

The group was given a tight deadline of November 20 to produce its report and recommendations, as the DOT would like to see aviation rules in place by early December. The haste was inspired by the known interest of terrorists in drones, by the misbehaviour of some non-terrorist drone operators, and by the ongoing surge in sales as the holiday season approaches. The DOT’s anxiety is well understandable.

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On top of the U.S. federal regulations, individual States may write local laws governing drone activity. Following complaints about close-up photography of people in their homes and gardens (notoriously by paparazzi hounding celebrities), California has put limits on flying drones. The law expands the state's definition of invasion of privacy to include sending a drone over private property to make a recording or take photographs.

In the UK, all non-military airspace falls under the jurisdiction of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). It already has some limits on the use of drones. For instance, a drone weighing over 20kg can only be legally flown in certified "danger areas". Even persons using a drone weighing less than 20kg for commercial use – receiving payment of any sort – are required to seek permission from the  CAA.  A drone operator must avoid flying it within 150 metres of a congested area and 50 metres of a person, vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the pilot.

Would-be operators of drones in commercial use need to show that they are “sufficiently competent” in order to obtain that permission. In Parliament, the House of Lords EU Committee has proposed the compulsory registration of all commercial and civilian drones, so as to track and manage such traffic.

On the grounds of supposed enhanced public safety, the Committee suggests that all commercial drone operators should register their drones on an online database or app in the near future, and that in the longer term this should encompass leisure users as well. The policy of strict control over drones is backed by civil complaints over invasion of privacy.

There has been at least one successful UK prosecution for dangerous operation of a UAV (which crashed near a nuclear facility). Police forces have noted drone use by burglars looking for unattended houses. And the British Airline Pilots Association is a strong advocate of mandatory pilot training for operators of all types on UAVs which may share airspace with commercial airliners.

The French DGAC is the equivalent of the UK CAA. Since 2012 France has had regulations for the commercial use of drones, with operators required to apply for official certification. Businesses can fly drones within a pilot’s line of sight and beyond that line of sight (with the help of a video camera) over a distance of up to 15 kilometres. The drone operator must also have “adequate” insurance necessary for its activity”. The existing legislation relating to drones does not deal specifically with drone operators’ liability.

However, since drones are treated as aircraft, existing aviation law in France should apply. Under the Transportation Code, an aircraft operator is strictly liable for damage caused by an aircraft to persons or property on the ground, unless the damage results from the victim’s fault (this is the only available defence).

Criminal Penalties

Drone operators are also exposed to criminal penalties. Public prosecutors recently charged a drone operator with endangering human life (under Article 223-1 of the Criminal Code) for carrying out unauthorised flights of a remote-controlled drone over populated areas. Various other criminal penalties can apply, such as for unauthorised photography.

In Italy ENAC, the Italian Civil Aviation Authority, defines drones as unmanned aircraft systems (known in Italian as Sistemi di Aeromobili a Pilotaggio Remoto (SAPR) with a takeoff weight lower than 150kg and flown outdoors by a remotely based pilot.

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The ENAC Regulation provides for two different levels of authorizations to operate Light and Heavy Drones; the required authorization varies based on the weight as well as the actual use of the drone. Different rules will apply in different zones. There is a general requirement that all pilots of drones must be at least 18 years old, have knowledge of the applicable air rules, and have specific knowledge of how to operate the make of UAV in use.

Other rules specify how a UAV pilot may obtain the appropriate compulsory certification of good health.

There is no space here to continue writing a pocket encyclopedia to provide a synopsis of the approaches taken to drone regulation by all the world’s national aviation authorities. The examples given above are sufficient to illustrate the diversity and complexity of governmental responses to the drone phenomenon.

At present the activities of recreational drone operators remain to some degree unrestricted. But subsequent to the recent downing of the Russian airliner over Sinai and the terror attacks in Paris, it is likely that security services within the U.S. and in Europe will be looking with a jaundiced eye at these freedoms. The commercial desire to remove hurdles to market development for drone technology is certain to conflict with the US and European administrations’ concerns for public safety.

The conclusion has to be that for the yachting industry, drones have arrived, they are here to stay, and we should be prepared to enjoy them.

But we have to accept that flying drones is not an unrestricted free-for-all activity. It is not as simple as buy-and-fly. Regulations do exist in many national jurisdictions, and merely being offshore does not necessarily provide exemption. Under international law the horizontal boundary of national airspace of any littoral state is the 12-mile limit of its territorial waters. Accordingly, it behoves a captain to confirm the local regulations which may apply over land and up to that maritime boundary, before assenting to a drone being operated from on board.

Understanding Liability

This may be especially important if the drone in question is actually part of the yacht’s inventory, or is being operated by a charter guest. In such cases the circumstances of the flight may, in the eyes of the authorities, bring it into the commercial category.

Which brings us to the question of liability. As ever, the captain remains ultimately responsible for whatever happens on board his vessel. Legally, any vessel is an extension of its flag state’s territory, and is governed by its criminal and civil legal codes.

Once airborne, a drone is operating within the jurisdiction of the national airspace of the country where the yacht happens to be. An illegal drone flight may expose a captain to criminal charges carrying penalties of fines or imprisonment (ignorance of the Law is no defence in any jurisdiction).

Any flight which results in injury to persons or property may lead to a suit for compensatory damages, possibly compounded by accusations of negligence. Which administration would accept or claim jurisdictional competence remains to be tested.

Another way in which drones’ virtues may become a liability is that their cameras and other recording devices potentially allow them to collect and process a substantial amount of personal data. Recording images of other people without their consent could be construed as a breach of data protection laws. In the UK the CCTV Code of Practice embraces the public use of drones where they are collecting information about individuals.


Crew who share on social media any images or recordings that have been captured using a drone may be in serious breach of NDAs. Sharing items on Twitter or Facebook means surrendering these postings to these sites’ terms and conditions  which allow them to license user content to other organisations. In such cases, to what extent might a captain or owner be held culpable for colluding in such activities by expressly permitting the drone to operate from the yacht?

Privacy and Security

There is a flip side to all this. Regulations are all very well if people abide by them. What action can be taken by a captain if his/her yacht is on the receiving end of a visit from a rogue drone? Some owners and charterers are very particular about privacy and security, which may be major factors in their enjoyment of the yachting experience.

The arrival of a drone overhead or hovering a few metres off the swim platform would present a problem for the captain when high profile or otherwise sensitive guests are angered by such an intrusion. Analysts at the security groups CDS Marine, Allmode Ltd., and  Securewest International note that methods for dealing with the situation are limited.

Jamming may be one option, but may also be illegal, and might result in the drone crashing nearby and causing damage or injury to a third party. A take-over of the rogue drone’s GPS to guide it to a “safe” forced landing is technically feasible, but legally questionable.

Aggressive use of any sort of projectiles to hand may cause the drone pilot to pull the craft back to a greater distance, but its camera and other sensors will continue to operate. At the same time, the offending drone can be probing for any vulnerabilities in the yacht’s defences against cyber attack. We offer no comfort on this score, beyond recommending consultation with your yacht’s security advisers for regular updated guidance on defence against privacy invasion or security threats by drones.

Drones’ capacities for good or evil will expand as range, load capacity and endurance increase with advances in technology. Craft designed to operate beyond Visual Line of Sight may take them beyond the “toy” definition.  

State of Flux

The whole situation is in constant flux. In the 48 hours since starting to plan this article, one major drone maker in the US has announced that its craft will have access to fencing software which will by default prevent take off in, or flying into, whatever zones are contemporaneously designated as no-go by the relevant authorities. In the past 24 hours, the US DOT Work Group has submitted its recommendations to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) which seeks to implement them before Christmas. These recommendations already face criticism and further amendments are likely soon.

drone over the sea

Aide Memoire

Considering all the foregoing, the safe course would seem to be to treat drone operations from a yacht with at least the same degree of seriousness as PWC activities. This contention may not be welcome, but where is your evidence that to do otherwise is realistic, responsible and good practice?

To ease the agony, below as an Aide Memoire is a template which can be used to formulate any yacht’s policy, procedures and check list for drone operations. If nothing ever goes wrong with zipping a drone around the neighbourhood, then all well and good. But if anything does go wrong, and inadvertently laws are broken or an accident happens, then a documented record of having made a reasonable effort to establish good practice in drone operations may be a lifesaver or a career saver.

pdf 32  Preface to Policy & Procedures

pdf 2  Preflight Checklist for Drone Operations

pdf 3  Statement of Policy & Protocols for drone operations


*Image credits: Flickr/Flickr/FunAir/Pixabay/Flickr/Flickr CC2.0; Shutterstock; FunAir

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