Award-win­ning coach and self-taught drone pi­lot Wil­lie Mcbride ex­plains the ben­e­fits of putting a bug in the sky when train­ing.

Sailing World - - Contents -

While sit­ting in the US Sail­ing Team house in Aarhus, Den­mark, I watched the Laser Ra­dial World Cham­pi­onship medal race with the young U. S. kite- rac­ing squad ( which brought home a gold medal from the event). We were talk­ing tac­tics, and how the Ra­dial rac­ing ap­plied to the faster- paced, shorter- course kite rac­ing. Look­ing out to the race­course from the shore, we talked about new pres­sure com­ing down the course, and which side each sailor had picked, but the re­ally use­ful im­agery was the live over­head video stream­ing on the bigscreen TV. The vi­su­als on screen high­lighted po­si­tion­ing de­ci­sions, showed the shape, speed and lo­ca­tion of puffs rolling off the shore­line and gave a per­spec­tive of how each com­peti­tor’s mode de­ci­sion was play­ing out on the race­course. As the fleet got closer to the wind­ward mark, and closer to our view­ing lo­ca­tion, the roar of the he­li­copter film­ing the ac­tion got louder and louder, drown­ing out the con­ver­sa­tion. Over the din of the blades, one of the kiters jok­ingly yelled, “Man, he­li­copters are so 2000. Haven’t they heard of a drone?”

To be fair, the Sail­ing World Cham­pi­onships used both he­li­copter footage and drone footage to serve dif­fer­ent pur­poses, and the prod­uct was some of the best rac­ing cov­er­age to date, but sit­ting with the young group of Gen­er­a­tion Z kite­board­ers, it was strik­ingly ob­vi­ous the days of he­li­copter footage are num­bered, and that the fu­ture of ae­rial video, and with it, the fu­ture of coach­ing, is in our hands — lit­er­ally.

Over the past three years, drone tech­nol­ogy has come

leaps and bounds to­ward ac­ces­si­bil­ity and prac­ti­cal­ity, and as a re­sult, the num­ber one piece of ad­vice I give to coaches who are in­ter­ested in in­cor­po­rat­ing drone tech­nol­ogy into their tool­box is not to be in­tim­i­dated. With the sen­sor pack­ages and sta­bi­liza­tion tech­nol­ogy in to­day’s drones, the de­vices can lit­er­ally fly them­selves. Com­pact units make it easy to throw one into your dry bag with a few spare bat­ter­ies and the rest of your coach­ing kit, and with a lit­tle prac­tice you’ll be able to go from safely tucked away to fly­ing in a minute or two. As such, over­head views of tac­ti­cal po­si­tion­ing, sail setup and wind on the wa­ter have be­come a tool you can put to use any time you have a coach on the wa­ter.


The most im­por­tant fac­tor in choos­ing a drone is ease of use. About $ 1,000 will get you a de­vice equipped with a 4K cam­era, a few re­place­ment bat­ter­ies and the full sen­sor pack­age. DJI is by far the most com­mon man­u­fac­turer, and its gear is gen­er­ally ready to go out of the box. The Mavic Pro se­ries is about the right bal­ance of power, size and speed for dinghy and keel­boat coach­ing, and the price range be­tween a used orig­i­nal Mavic Pro all the way up to a new Mavic 2 gives you re­ally great op­tions, depend­ing on your bud­get.

How­ever, keep in mind that the bug it­self might not be your only cost as­so­ci­ated with run­ning your new drone pro­gram. Depend­ing on the video file for­mat that you choose to record in, 4K video will take up a lot of space on your hard drive, so plan on in­vest­ing in an ex­ter­nal hard drive for stor­age — the faster the drive, the bet­ter — and check to make sure your com­puter specs will al­low you to play 4K video. Neu­tral den­sity ( ND) fil­ters, while not nec­es­sary, are also a good idea when film­ing on the wa­ter, be­cause they elim­i­nate some of the glare from the wa­ter and help pre­vent wash­ing out the con­trast of fea­tures in­side the boat, es­pe­cially when a white boat is sail­ing over dark wa­ter.

Learn­ing to Fly

When you first start us­ing a drone for train­ing, you’ll find that it will keep it­self sta­tion­ary in the air with­out you even touch­ing the con­troller. As such, your job is to help it stay out of trou­ble, and put it in the right places to be use­ful. Start slow. Prac­tice in an open field first to get con­fi­dent in what the drone can do on its own, and what it needs help with, then slowly add in skills as you gain con­fi­dence. To use a drone from a coach boat, you’ll need to learn how to launch and re­trieve from your hand. This is often the most dif­fi­cult part at first be­cause you’ll be ma­nip­u­lat­ing the drone as well as the two joy­sticks at the same time. Don’t worry; at first, it seems like a skill that re­quires three hands, but with a lit­tle prac­tice, you’ll be a master of hold­ing the drone over­head with one hand, and us­ing the other to hold the con­troller and squeeze the con­trol sticks to­gether at the same time.

As you get com­fort­able with the process, you’ll next want to try the same thing on the wa­ter, in flat con­di­tions. As you learn to launch and re­trieve in in­creas­ingly rough con­di­tions, it will seem like the drone has a mind of its own, chang­ing al­ti­tudes or veer­ing left or right, but keep in mind that with a good GPS fix, the drone will stay per­fectly sta­tion­ary, so all of that move­ment isn’t ac­tu­ally the drone, but the wa­ter mov­ing you around un­der­neath. As such, the best tech­nique in rough con­di­tions is to place the drone in one spot to lee­ward of the coach boat, and let the coach boat drift down onto it.

At first glance, the num­ber of menus to change set­tings can seem over­whelm­ing, but the re­al­ity is that once you get ev­ery­thing set, you’ll dive deeper into the menus on rare oc­ca­sions. That said, for windier con­di­tions and faster boats, you’ll need to learn how to use

“sport mode,” which sac­ri­fices some sen­sors, au­to­ma­tion and bat­tery life for speed. This will be in­tim­i­dat­ing at first, but the key is stay­ing high enough in the air, where there are no ob­sta­cles (sails) to worry about while you’re learn­ing. I often switch back and forth be­tween sport mode and nor­mal GPS mode sev­eral times per minute to get into po­si­tion quickly and then re­duce sen­si­tiv­ity on the con­trol sticks to main­tain the de­sired po­si­tion.

Once you’ve mas­tered the ba­sics, the next step is to use the drone to cap­ture per­spec­tives that will of­fer rel­e­vant feed­back. Here’s a quick list of a few per­spec­tives to try:

Di­rectly over­head. While this view often doesn’t show the whole pic­ture, and can’t cover the en­tire race­course, it’s ex­cel­lent for look­ing at tac­ti­cal po­si­tion­ing. It elim­i­nates the “he- said- she- said,” and al­lows you to look at dis­tance be­tween boats. This is great for start­ing- line po­si­tion­ing, mark-round­ing rules sce­nar­ios and look­ing at rate of turn in ma­neu­vers. Use sport mode for this per­spec­tive to en­sure that you keep the tac­ti­cal sce­nario cen­tered in the pic­ture. Third- per­son mast­head

view. A ba­sic ad­van­tage of drone footage is that it’s very stable. As such, it’s a great tool for look­ing at straight­line tech­nique and boathandling tech­niques be­cause it gives you a stable video in high res­o­lu­tion so that you can zoom in to see ex­actly what hands and feet are do­ing at any given mo­ment. Dur­ing rac­ing, this per­spec­tive gives a good idea of what your team is look­ing at, and what they’re go­ing to en­counter next on the course. This is where you should be tog­gling be­tween sport mode and nor­mal mode to main­tain po­si­tion be­hind your team.

Side- fleet view. While bad for iso­lat­ing in­di­vid­ual tac­ti­cal sce­nar­ios, this view gives you a much big­ger pic­ture of what is go­ing on across the race­course. With this per­spec­tive, you can see the en­tire fleet, and while it might not be per­fect for un­der­stand­ing boat spac­ing or po­si­tion­ing, it is def­i­nitely bet­ter than your av­er­age hand- cam video. Think of this as Ver­sion 2.0 of the stan­dard race­course coach­ing video. To make it eas­ier to drive the coach boat and the drone at the same time, use sport mode to fly part­way up the course so that you are slightly up­wind of the fleet, then switch back to nor­mal mode and just use one con­trol stick to pan the view as the fleet gets closer.

Bow- on view. One of the great things about drone video is you can re­verse a lot faster than a mo­tor­boat, and you don’t throw a wake. This per­spec­tive is a use­ful tool to look at head­stay dy­nam­ics, crew sight­lines and sail shape in a way that wasn’t pre­vi­ously pos­si­ble. If you’re film­ing a fast boat, or film­ing in high winds, start in sport mode, or start high to en­sure you can stay out of the way of the boat, then switch to nor­mal mode once you’re con­fi­dent you can stay out in front. Your sailors will ex­pect the drone to avoid them, so if you get too slow di­rectly in front, you risk get­ting run over. Q

Over­head views of tac­ti­cal po­si­tion­ing, sail setup and wind on the wa­ter have be­come a tool you can put to use any time you have a coach on the wa­ter.


Po­si­tion the drone high over­head for tac­ti­cal anal­y­sis, or near the mast­head to study straight-line tech­nique and boathandling. Bow-on drone po­si­tion­ing is great for cap­tur­ing sail shape, head­stay dy­nam­ics and tech­nique. A side-fleet view pro­vides the big pic­ture of the race­course, use­ful for un­der­stand­ing fleet, wind and cur­rent ef­fects. A drone will de­liver new and pow­er­ful per­spec­tives to coaches with­out in­ter­fer­ing with their sailors.

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