If you’ve been following my blog and my social media posts, you’re probably already aware of my adventures with America’s Boating Channel. It all started with a drone workshop at the Sawgrass Marriott in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL that eventually gave way to a series of Inlet Drone Videos as a pilot project for America’s Boating Channel.
USPS Drone Workshop at the Sawgrass Mariott in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL – February 2022
The premise behind the UAV workshop I presented at the Sawgrass Mariott in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL was to introduce United States Power Squadrons‘ members to a new pilot project, documenting inlets. It gave an overview of the capabilities of smaller more affordable drones and how members can use them to participate in documenting inlets they are familiar with as the Inlet Drone Video project advances. Naturally, the drone flight demonstration and contributing drone video footage all require an FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate.
THE CAPE FEAR RIVER INLET VIDEO
It wasn’t long afterward that I received a phone call from Marty Lafferty to participate in the filming of the first of three inlets in the pilot project, the Cape Fear River. This was no menial task. We were to document the navigation from the Intracoastal waters headed West through Snow’s Cut and South down the Cape Fear River to Oak Island/Bald Head Island!
The proposal to document the Cape Fear River in North Carolina was submitted by Meg Morrison and it was simply too good to refuse! The Cape Fear River incorporates a system of overlapping ICW markers that make it unique. It also is a vast territory that presented many challenges that were to be looked upon as a great learning experience for the entire production team.
Lessons Learned producing the Cape Fear Inlet Drone Video
This was a large territory to cover and document. We knew this was going to be a learning experience based solely on the scale of the project. All the planning paid off, especially when it came to determining a variety of launch points for the drone missions. All the more essential, identifying the areas where we needed to procure the necessary permits to legally operate a drone. Having to get a permit to launch operations from the Carolina Beach State Park was a given, we weren’t surprised at all. In addition, a national security zone, the Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point presented intermittent flight restrictions without much-advanced notice.
Before I could tackle any drone permits in North Carolina, I needed to obtain additional permits from the NCDOT to fly commercial and government missions. As far as I know, North Carolina is the only State that currently requires a permit in addition to your FAA Part 107. It’s a simple online process that can be completed with ease. Once I had the NCDOT permit in place, it was only a matter of obtaining a permit from the Carolina Beach State Park to launch missions that documented Snow’s Cut as it intersected the Cape Fear River.
Marty took care of contacting the North Carolina Baptist Assembly at Fort Caswell for permission to launch our missions from their private property. This enabled us to document the most southern geographical area of our Cape Fear Inlet Video. Local knowledge and teamwork were key factors in completing our pre-production milestones successfully prior to the arrival of the production team.
Due to the vast territory to cover and the national security flight restrictions around the Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point, it became apparent we couldn’t solely rely on our DJI drones to provide all the necessary footage. The Sunny Point Area’s flight restrictions cover a large area from Snow’s Cut South to the Fort Fisher Ferry Terminal.
To document the Cape Fear River throughout the flight-restricted area, we decided to centrally mount a DJI Pocket 2 gimbal-stabilized camera on Ned’s boat and use a handheld video camera to capture specific details on either side. This also enabled us to use the DJI Pocket 2’s wireless microphone to capture Ned Rhodes’ narration as we navigated the waterways. The microphone narration combined with the raw video footage proved to be an invaluable tool in documenting every step as we navigated each and every waterway in this pilot series of inlet videos. The audio was transcribed and used as source material by the scriptwriters for the post-production team.
Our initial focus was to film the waterways and the landscape in an effort to document the run from the Intracoastal heading west through Snow’s Cut and then South down the Cape Fear River to Oak Island/Bald Head Island. Empty rivers and landscapes alone did not bring out the full essence of navigating the waterways we were documenting. As we filmed, we quickly realized that the inclusion of a variety of boats and vessels from jet skis to large container ships within our footage was a necessity. It created a better visual for navigating these waters and represented the traffic recreational boaters would meet along the way.
As the post-production team got to work on the videos, it was obvious we needed a good intro, an opening segment that set the stage for the documentary.
The final phase and probably one of the most crucial visual elements was to add animation to the videos. Animation of maps and navigational charts was the missing link to better communicate and visualize the challenges recreational boaters would face.
THE BAKER’S HAULOVER INLET VIDEO
As the Inlet Drone Video pilot project moved along, the Baker’s Haulover Inlet in North Miami, FL was the next inlet in the series approved by the US Coast Guard.
The Haulover Inlet was chosen for one very specific reason, its notoriety for boat fails. A simple internet search will reveal dozens and dozens of boat fails posted to social media. It had boating safety written all over this inlet and an educational video was necessary to build awareness and educate unsuspecting recreational boaters. We truly wanted to demonstrate best practices and the safest conditions to take on the Baker’s Haulover Inlet.
Lessons Learned Producing the Baker’s Haulover Inlet Drone Video
The opening segment of multiple fails was particularly well suited for this inlet drone video. Boat fails are simply the social media trademark the Haulover Inlet has become known for!
The Haulover Inlet is more of your typical Florida inlet that covers a very small geographical area. The small size of the inlet simplified the planning process and the steps necessary to document the inlet. From a videographer’s perspective, it simply enabled us to easily give an overview of the entire inlet in one simple aerial composition.
Not having to travel miles to document a large territory as we did with the Cape Fear River Inlet Drone Video, gave us the opportunity to film the daily traffic through the inlet itself. We experimented throughout the day with multiple scenarios from fishing vessels headed out to the ocean in the early morning hours to the return of recreational boaters in the afternoon.
The DJI Mini SE is the drone suggested to any USPS member wanting affordable access to aerial videography in order to help document inlets in their area. Basic 1080P video footage is all that needs to be submitted. Like all modern DJI drones, the Mini SE has a downward-facing sensor that allows it to detect the ground and control the landing speed to prevent a hard crash. Regardless of the drone you have, these may have adverse effects over water. I have never experienced any negative results from flying overwater and I have lived and flown by many bodies of water throughout the world.
The Haulover Inlet was my first close call with a sensor anomaly over water. As I was flying under the bridge to mimic a boater’s point of view of turning port to the open ocean, the drone started to lose altitude. I could clearly see it descending from the video feed but the altitude remained steady at 7.6 meters. It simply would not respond to upward controls to take on altitude until it was barely two feet from the water. It was also one of the very first times I experienced communication blackouts between the drone and the remote, preventing me from properly documenting certain areas of the ICW.
For Haulover, we decided to enhance the onboard camera experience we had undertaken during the filming of the Cape Fear River Inlet Video. This time we rigged up two cameras to the boat. We mounted the DJI Pocket 2 stabilized gimbal camera to the center of the windshield for a more realistic recreational boater perspective of taking on the infamous Haulover Inlet. The second camera, a submersible DJI Osmo Action camera was rigged low to the starboard railing to get up close and personal with the waves we were to encounter. A new dual camera perspective that was sure to better immerse the audience in a more realistic crossing of the Haulover inlet.
Being a smaller inlet, the focus was on navigational awareness and techniques to confront the challenges recreational boaters would encounter navigating the Haulover Inlet. This was a true contrast with the Cape Fear River Inlet Drone Video project where geographical points and buoys were of greater importance to boaters. This time around we used the DJI Mic dual wireless microphone system as our local expert, Lee Popham of the Miami Sail & Power Squadron, was our main narrator assisted by the seasoned commercial boater, Anthony Pupillo, who navigated the inlet for us from the intercoastal marker. This created a two-person expertise to be transcribed assisting both the scriptwriters and the entire post-production team.
Although Haulover is a smaller inlet, animation proved once again necessary to better illustrate navigation to and from the ICW.
THE COLUMBIA RIVER BAR INLET VIDEO
The third and final chapter in this series of inlet drone videos was requested by the US Coast Guard for being one of the most dangerous inlets in North America, the Columbia River Bar. Therefore it was a win-win situation for boating safety while adding due representation to the Pacific Northwest Region and its breathtaking landscapes.
Lessons Learned Producing the Columbia River Bar Inlet Drone Video
Although there was a multitude of videos on YouTube documenting fails at Haulover, the Columbia River Bar’s reputation was far more serious and dangerous. In my mind, no boat was big enough to cross the Columbia Bar! The introduction segment of this video truly mirrored my vision of crossing the Bar. I’m very thankful for John Pearson and Ken Piper’s expertise that made it a truly positive experience aboard the Honey Badger!
This was definitely not as vast of a territory to cover as the Cape Fear River Project, however, the mouth of the Columbia River is wide, presenting some of the challenges faced along the Cape Fear River. We were also presented with a landscape of cliffs to the South and large jetties surrounded by NO-FLY Zones to the North and South. The entire project demanded a good level of planning and coordination. Washington State Laws require a public process of 60 days prior to issuing a permit to fly a drone within a State Park territory. Although a permit could be issued in as little as 30 days as an exception for certain educational and research projects, the public process can not be circumvented and the possibility of having the permit refused remained a reality.
The NO-FLY Zones are not only the result of Washington State Parks and other local and State Regulations. The US Department of the Interior and US Fish & Wildlife also regulate certain areas as restricted NO-FLY Zones to protect wildlife, especially nesting birds throughout the region. That added another obstacle that may never have been approved. We were merely attempting to launch from the edge of the territory’s NO-FLY Zone on dry land to fly over water where there are no restrictions in place.
This forced us to make a decision that went against our initial planning, we were going to fly some of our missions from a boat. Even then, it didn’t solve all our hurdles. There was also a NO-FLY Zone present from the South, it protruded into the Columbia River’s navigational channel making it impossible to fly the drone anywhere near the red buoys we wanted to document.
Once again, onboard cameras were indispensable tools to complement the drone video footage. We mounted the cameras in a similar fashion as we did in Haulover. The DJI Pocket 2 gimbal-stabilized camera was centrally mounted to the windshield on the flybridge. The DJI Osmo Action was used as a submersible camera on the starboard railing. One big lesson learned in rigging the gimbal camera to a larger diesel-powered boat, mitigating vibration. A new rigging holding the camera closer to the gimbal would probably solve the issues.
I also had to use battery packs to extend the two cameras’ internal battery life. Although not an issue with the DJI Pocket 2 as it was to remain dry and far from the elements, the Osmo Action needed a little more tender loving care. I wrapped the battery pack in plastic and sealed the USB connection on the camera with a Silicone Putty to maintain the camera’s waterproofing. The solution proved to be very effective.
Once again we used the DJI Pocket 2‘s wireless microphone. We wired Ken at the helm on the Fly Bridge to narrate the journey from Ilwaco, WA through the Bar and back. The microphone was sensitive enough to capture Marty’s voice who was sitting next to Ken as he asked questions pertaining to navigating the Columbia River Bar. In addition to Ken’s narration, Marty’s questions added value to the soundtrack proving that real-time audio from multiple individuals creates an invaluable resource for the post-production team.
As we returned from the Bar we sought protection from the waves behind the Northern Jetty. Unpredictable weather makes planning and executing drone flights more challenging. Fog, rain, and wind were variables that could quickly change. Although we didn’t get the clear weather forecast that was announced, visibility was over 7 miles, and the cloud cover was well over 2000 feet. Winds were at 5.9MPH and the probability of rain was a low 5%.
As we proceeded with a UAV mission from the boat, I flew the drone to the first Buoy we identified for the starting point of our Inlet video. As the Drone was set in position to document the area surrounding this first buoy, unexpected fog and rain rolled in and forced us to abort the mission mid-flight. What I didn’t expect, was an accumulation of rain both on my glasses and the remote controller’s touchscreen. This compounded the difficulties associated with landing a drone on a nonstationary boat.
In the clip below, the (H) on the map indicates the initial Home Point where the drone was launched. The squiggly horizontal line is simply following the boat in an attempt to land in difficult conditions.
As the waves were rocking the boat, Ken was attempting to keep us stationary using a crab cage marker for reference. While attempting to disable obstacle avoidance to bring the drone closer to me, I quickly realized I had little response on the wet touchscreen. For some reason, the sideways flight kept being disabled and re-enabled merely by the presence of water on the screen. I started to worry I would run out of battery so I was contemplating cutting the motors at an opportune time to catch the drone. Lucky for me, I was finally able to bring the drone close enough to lunge at it. As I grabbed it, I quickly flipped it over and the motors turned off putting an end to that stressful event.
It was definitely time to find alternatives; launching our drone missions from the boat was not the solution. Although we had permission to launch missions from the Coast Guard Territory by Jetty A, we still needed to get out in the open ocean passed the Northern Jetty. We decided to go and scout the lighthouse area at the top of the cliff as a possible launch point.
Although the higher elevations and cliff-side locations provided a terrific overview of the entrance to the Columbia Bar, its jetties and much of the area to be documented, the risk of dense fog rolling in presented too high of a risk to be a feasible option. Dense fog can appear as a solid barrier to the drone’s obstacle avoidance sensors. Judging the drone’s true altitude above sea level and the waters we were documenting can become more complicated when operating way below the UAV’s initial take-off altitude.
Lucky for us, further scouting of the area by Charlene Donnelly helped us identify the jetties as non-restricted flight areas providing a safe and legal alternative to launching the drone from a boat or higher elevation. We undertook these missions on the morning of our last day of shooting which turned out to be a great day to fly as well.
The Columbia River Bar was truly a combination of lessons learned from the two previous inlets. Cape Fear and Haulover provided us with the insight to better document complex navigational situations that rely on geographical locations, markers, and boating techniques.
Closing Chapter of the Inlet DroneVideos Pilot Project
To close off this chapter, I found myself at the Maritime Conference Center, located on the grounds of the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS) in Maryland. As part of the United States Power Squadrons’ D/5 Fall Educational Conference, Marty Lafferty gave an update on the growth and evolution of America’s Boating Channel. We immediately followed with a World Premier of the Inlet Videos reserved for USPS members in attendance. Once officially released over the Thanksgiving Weekend, they will be publicly viewable on Youtube at www.americasboatingchannel.com.
Following the conference and our World Premier, we decided to have an improvised indoor drone demonstration. We demonstrated the abilities of the DJI Mini SE, with propeller guards in the conference room. It was similar to the one held at the Sawgrass Marriott in February of 2022. We basically closed this chapter having gone full circle.
Video by Stephanie Hybiske Ward – USPS
Participating in this project was made all that much more enjoyable due to the dedication of United Power Squadrons’ members who were involved in each and every one of these inlet videos. They not only dedicated their time, resources, and local knowledge, but they also brought out the joy and passion of boating as they participated throughout the execution of each and every one of these inlet drone videos. I have never met such a great group of kind-hearted individuals.
I especially want to extend a BIG THANK YOU to Otis and Barbara White of the Cape Fear Sail & Power Squadron for providing me with accommodations throughout the Cape Fear Inlet Drone Video shoot and to Sari Lafferty who photographed our adventures throughout this pilot project. Her absence was felt in Haulover, FL.