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 big-screen 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 straight-line 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.