We talk with two Texas Pilots about their drones

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The Pilots PIO:Captains David Adrian of the Matagorda Pilots and Wesley Moore with the Sabine Pilots, thank you for taking my questions and talking about your drones. Let's get this interview underway.

Q: When and what moved you to invest in a drone?

Captain David Adrian: Several years ago, I started recording some of my transits with a Go-Pro and condensed them into short time-lapse movies.   They were crude at first, a little jumpy but I got better with the film editing and smoothing.   I did this because people are always asking about my job and what I do, it was a means to show them exactly what I see from the bridge when transiting down the channel.  They also served as an educational tool for the port users, agents, state representatives and senators.    Despite this great technology, I was still being asked, “so what are the tugs doing”….. I realized, while I know exactly what the tugs are doing (because Im giving the commands), they are sometimes not visible in the time lapse video, so no-one else really knows.   Enter Aerial Video……The Drone.    What really made me pull the trigger and invest in a drone was when I saw Wesley Moore’s (Sabine Pilots) first drone video….. WOW… I was hooked.

Captain Wesley Moore: I can walk and swim pretty well, but flying is a bit of a challenge.  I bought the drone because I wanted to be able to see things from a different perspective.  I wanted to capture pictures and video that I just couldn't achieve standing on the ground.

Q: How are you using the drones?

Adrian:I primarily use my drone as an education tool for people who want to learn about our pilotage route, port and ship channel.    I speak to Rotary and Lions Clubs a few times a year and visual aids always help get the perspective of pilotage to them.   A picture may be worth 1,000 words but I think a video is worth 10,000….   Now, I must admit, my son uses it as a recreational tool…….

Moore:I've used them for several things but mostly I capture images of ships.  People ask for things all the time though.  Engagement photos, hunting videos, school's wanting to get pictures of their students.... everyone has an idea about an activity that they do where a drone would be useful.

Q: Why are drones useful in your work as pilots?

 Adrian: Education...

Moore:I think that most people who live in a port area are not aware of how impactful shipping is upon their community.  I also feel that using videos and photographs to introduce those same people to the inner workings of the waterway raises the community's awareness, which is good for all the waterway's stakeholders.

Q: Are you making the drone videos available on social media?

 Adrian: Some times yes… I do need to put more online and plan on doing so soon.

 Moore: Yes.  https://vimeo.com/user33495045

Q: If so, what is the link that I can insert in the story?

Adrian: https://vimeo.com/212865139

Moore:Yes.  https://vimeo.com/user33495045

Q: How did you get started using the drones?

 Adrian: I did quite a bit of research before purchasing a drone…. I looked a Phantoms, Yuneec, and Autel’s.  All three had good quality and some had more benefits than others….   I settled on an Autel Robotics x-star mainly because of its expansion capability.   You can switch out cameras and the battery life is excellent.     I knew before I would take the drone down to the port or any other populated place, I needed practice flying it for a few days in a wide open un-populated area.   I have discovered several RC communities or Hobby Shops have the knowledge to get you to a safe location to learn how to fly.   I took ours to our local softball fields and high school football field to learn to fly.  

Moore:I started seeing some great videos of people getting cameras into locations that create great views of many different activities and I wanted to try my hand at it.

 Q: What's been the biggest surprise for you in using the drone?

Adrian:The amazing video quality and the ease to fly it…..The drone also has the ability to hover in one place well, even if the wind is a little gusty, almost creating the effect of a "permanently mounted” camera above the objects you are filming.  Surprisingly tough…..  I will admit, I have crashed it once trying to take off in a gusting wind and I didn’t damage it.   

The drone has a "go home" mode.   In the event of a low battery, loss of signal from the controller or a simple press of the "go home" button, the drone will return back to the exact point from which it took off, hover, land itself and shut down…..  Pretty nice when on land…..

Moore:How easy a good drone is to operate. Most of the good amateur drones can give you a great optics package and a flight control system that will hover the drone within one-tenth of a foot in 30-knot winds.  The user gets to focus on the camera angle and placement and less on how to keep the drone where he/she wants it. 

Q: What concerns come with using a drone?

Adrian:Safety….  People and Location.    I don’t fly the drone above a group of people, over a ship or over a facility at the port.   I realize, while drones are highly maneuverable and easy to fly, they are machines and can have failures.   They are highly sensitive pieces of equipment and interference with the GPS and Compass could cause them to fly erratically.    With that said, I try to set up the drone where it is never above the target object.   There could be nothing worse than a drone falling on the deck of a tanker, hitting a person or crashing into the side of a ship because your flying too low and she tries to come home because of loss of signal.

Moore:There are plenty of FAA rules to follow, but really it's about common sense.  If I am doing drone shots of a ship, I call the pilot on the ship and let him know and ask that he gets the okay from the vessel's master.  I don't fly the drone over terminals and I try to avoid actually putting the drone over a ship.  You can get great shots from higher side angles and there's no risk of the drone failing and crashing into the vessel. 

Q: What limitations come with the drone?

Adrian: Line of sight transmission between the controller and the drone…  25 minute battery life,  1.5 mile range,    Highly sensitive compass can make calibration difficult near metal and electrical objects.

Moore: The range is the big one.  A good consumer level drone will have a flight time of fewer than 30 minutes.  If you fly downwind 15 minutes you might not make it back home.  I launch and recover off of the pilot boat a lot and the flight control systems don't really handle a moving start point well so it's always trying to fly back to a point where there's nothing but water because that's where it took off from.  Another big limitation is seagulls.  They HATE the drone for some reason.

Q: What are the legal and regulatory concerns?

Adrian: The FAA has a list of rules to follow and "no fly" areas.   Fortunately, my drone has the "no fly areas" programmed into the transmitter software which will prevent the drone from even starting when in those areas.

Moore: The FAA has several guideline publications that should be adhered to.  The requirement for registration has recently been overturned but I still register my drones.  https://www.faa.gov/uas/

Q: Are you planning to continue your use of drones?

Adrian:Yes.  As my flying skills get better and the weather/seas at the pilot boarding area improves this summer, we will try to take off from the pilot boat to video pilot boardings and departures.   This takes a bit more skill as your landing and takeoff areas are significantly smaller and are no longer static, therefore your drone has no “home” to return to in the event of a controller failure.   Needless to say, the skill of manually landing the drone on a floating object has to significantly increase because the boat is bobbing and moving in the wind, seas and current….

Moore: When weather and opportunity allow it's a great way to spend a few hours.

Q: What's been the reactions of your fellow pilots and viewers to your drone videos?

Adrian: They love it and want to see more videos.   They are always great at suggesting new angles, locations and ideas.   They are fully aware of the educational tool this creates for the public and the users of the port.

Moore: They haven't complained so far  :)  It's funny to watch the pilot and master come out onto the bridge wing and try to spot the drone - most of the time they can't see or hear it.

Q: Do you have anything further to add about your drone use?

Adrian:When flying around the port facilities I always seek permission from the port director.   As a gesture of Kindness, I have always offered to share the videos and photos with the port so they can use them for Public Relations and their website.   Our port is small and I have a good relationship with the port director so It is usually never a problem and they understand as a pilot, I have a vested interest in the port and ints future.  They know I will take great care and diligence not to put anyone individual or facility in danger with the drone.

When flying a drone near a ship I always seek permission from the pilot onboard.   I do not fly the drone close to the ship as I do not want to create a distraction for the ships crew or the pilot.   Typically I just ask the pilot, “Hey, I want to record your ship maneuvering or transit in some different places with my drone. I don’t know exactly at what location yet, but I will keep it at a good distance from the ship and you will never know it is even there.  Is that OK?”  They usually grant my request.  With my experience the drone is never seen and I usually get a phone call asking why I didn’t show up… so I know they never saw it.


Moore:It's a great tool for showing the public what it is we do.  Video from a drone illustrates the close quarter nature of the waterway and it shows people the boarding/disembarking process. 

 The Pilots PIO: Captains Adrian and Moore, thank you for your time.  I look forward to following your drone videos.