Flying A Drone From A Boat: 10 Top Tips

Flying A Drone From A Boat: 10 Top Tips

10 top tips for flying a drone from a boat and over the water. Tips include calibrating all sensors (compass and IMU) on land, elevating the take-off platform if the deck has high metal content, and be aware of the risk of GNSS multipathing. Read the full list.

Last updated: Jul 28, 2022

5 minute read

Launching a drone from a boat.

  • Flying a drone from a boat and over the water comes with its own distinct challenges: We've compiled 10 top tips to help;
  • Tips include pre-checking your airspace before flight; calibrating all sensors (compass and IMU) on land; switching off the Downward Vision Positioning System; and setting the drone's Failsafe To Hover;
  • Prepare for a safe take-off: Elevate take-off platform if deck has high metal content, and rapidly increase throttle at take-off to exceed highest part of the vessel;
  • During flight, monitor the aircraft's telemetry data; and be aware of possible GNSS multipathing, increased risk of bird strike, and possible motion sickness;
  • Take post-flight maintenance seriously. 

From capturing epic imagery to conducting critical infrastructure inspections - sometimes drone pilots find themselves operating at sea.

As rewarding as these missions can be, they come with distinct challenges, including flying from a boat.


A drone flying over the water from a boat.


In fact, the principles of launching a drone from a vessel and operating over water has become an increasingly hot topic, with our in-house training team regularly fielding questions on the subject. 

With this in mind, we've prepared a list of top tips to help pilots fly from a boat, safely and effectively, to capture the content they need.

Flying A Drone From A Boat: Top Tips  

  1. Pre-check Airspace

    The ocean is vast, but don't be fooled into thinking you have complete operational freedom. It is important that pilots pre-check airspace in all areas in which the boat will be located to ensure the drone does not unexpectedly enter a no-fly zone.

    While at sea, drone laws - including keeping the drone in visual line of sight (if you haven't got permissions to fly beyond this) and legal distances from uninvolved people - do still apply. Find out more in our drone laws guide. The relevant drone laws relate to the specific Flight Information Region that pilots are operating in, as shown in the image below.

    Flight Information Region

    For instance, operators flying in the London or Scottish FIRs need to adhere to UK drone laws, but pilots deploying in the Brest FIR need to adhere to French drone rules.    

  2. Calibrate All Sensors On Land

    It is important that all of the sensors (Compass and IMU) are calibrated on land before the boat embarks.

    Compass errors are frequent when in close proximity to metal. And boats have a high metal content.

    Also, the IMU calibration requires the aircraft to stay perfectly still whilst flat and level: Something which is not easily achieved on a boat.

    Therefore, do this on land to reduce the likelihood of an error which could either have serious consequences while in flight, or result in having to return to the shore to recalibrate properly.

    As a side note, do not store the drone near to the boat's motor or engine room. Electromagnetic energy is emitted in these locations and this energy may cause a bad compass error.

  3. Switch Off Downward Vision Positioning System

    There is some debate on this subject, but we advise pilots to switch off the drone's Downward Vision Positioning System, especially when flying close to the water.

    This technology maps the surface below the drone to help position the aircraft, but the light reflecting off the surface of the water can cause issues.

    It is best to maintain a height of more than two metres above the water, but if flights are lower, turn off the Downward VPS to avoid any unstable actions by the drone.

    Disabling downward vision sensor on a drone for flying over water.

    In this case, pilots should fly in low speed in their field of view and adjust the height frequently as the aircraft could drift downwards.

    Pilots should always stay a metre above the water.

    And remember, with Downward VPS deactivated, pilots must exercise caution as precision landing will be affected.

  4. Set Failsafe To Hover

    We recommend that pilots set the drone's Failsafe to Hover, rather than Return To Home.

    Deploying a drone from a boat.

    A boat will likely drift, so RTH would fly the drone back to the GNSS coordinates recorded at the time of take off and then descend immediately. If the boat has moved, there is every chance the drone will go into the water. And remember, if a drone goes into the water, it is a write-off!

    Instead, Hover provides the chance to navigate the boat to underneath the hovering drone, ready for it to land. 

    In the event of Loss of Datalink, the vessel will have to navigate back to the UAS position and attempt to re-establish the link.

  5. Elevate Take-off and Landing Platform

    If the boat's deck has high metal content - which can result in compass errors within 1.5m - consider elevating the take-off and landing platform.

    Wooden pallets (non-slated) or the drone's hard case may be suitable, but likely to move with deck movement. Alternatively, the drone can be hand launched (and caught on landing), but please note that this does come with its own risks, so proceed with caution. Suitable PPE (personal protective equipment) is advised when catching an incoming drone.

  6. Rapidly Increase Throttle At Take-off

    The take-off procedure should be adapted to rapidly increase throttle to a height exceeding the tallest part of the vessel and in a direction away from the vessel to avoid collision. 

    Flying a drone from a boat. Increase altitude when taking off.

    We also advise that the boat should be static for take-off, unless it is a huge vessel.

  7. Be Aware Of Possible GNSS Multipathing

    Water can reflect GNSS, resulting in multipathing. This can lead to the GPS miscalculating its position, causing positional inaccuracies.

    Nothing can be done to mitigate this, but the remote pilot should continue to monitor the aircraft telemetry data throughout the flight and ensure that they are competent in operating in a non-GNSS assisted flight mode, such as Attitude (ATTI) mode.

  8. Be Aware Of Motion Sickness

    While not specifically a drone take-off/landing principle, it is important that remote pilots are aware of the potential risk of motion sickness.

    Motion sickness in this environment is common, even for those who don't routinely suffer, due to a combination of looking up and the movement of the boat.

    Prepare for this by taking motion/travel sickness pills with over-the-counter or prescription brands available.

  9. Increased Risk of Bird Strike

    Operating over the water can increase the chances of the drone being susceptible to bird strikes.

    Beware of birds when flying a drone over water.

    Tips for this include keeping a safe distance from any birds or colonies; making the drone more visible; and being adept at stick manoeuvres. In the event of a bird strike, get the drone away quickly.

    Keeping the drone within visual line of sight will also help to detect any issues early to take the appropriate action.

  10. Take Post Flight Maintenance Seriously

    Looking after the aircraft after flight is extremely important.

    Post-flight maintenance includes cleaning the salt water residue, using silicone packs and taking steps to aerate the drone.

Flying A Drone From A Boat: Top Tips

Flying above the water can present great opportunities, but there are some unique challenges associated with this type of flight which are different from routine missions over land.

It is important that drone operators take it seriously and give drone deployment from a boat the respect it deserves.

We hope this guide helps you. But for further advice, contact heliguy™ and our team will be happy to assist.

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