Novelty, nuisance or the next big thing?

Drones are a great accessory to enhance the yachting experience. With a camera feeding video back to the yacht, drones can serve as scouts for exploring the waters ahead, mates for spotting fish, or plotters for navigating an uncharted reef. Drones allow exploration beyond the reaches of even the smallest tender, and they can map out land expeditions, too. They enable spectacular photography in remote areas, from angles that would otherwise be unattainable. For guest entertainment, captains can even hire a drone swarm, which flies in formation for choreographed light shows as an alternative to fireworks.

Today’s large drones, as an alternative to helicopters, can carry passengers. An autonomous drone taxi service is scheduled to begin this summer in Dubai, and I would venture that it won’t be long before we see our first drone tender aboard a yacht. A passenger drone could serve as a shore shuttle, a transport to remote locations while cruising, a method for picking up supplies at a chandlery, or a lift for skiers to a snow-capped mountaintop that looks so tempting from an anchorage.

The technology is progressing at such a fast pace that regulatory agencies around the world seem unable to keep up. That’s a very real problem for any yacht owner, for two reasons.

First, he must check with the authorities in each area of operation, a process that is time-consuming and frustrating.

Second, and perhaps of more concern, is that other people’s drones can threaten a yacht’s privacy, security and safety. The nuisance factor is one thing; so is collateral, accidental damage. It’s a whole other thing to hear reports of paparazzi seeking photos, drones being weaponized and other malicious uses.

Several captains were reluctant to discuss the topic with me, but acknowledged that drones are on their radar, sometimes literally. Early on, shotguns were the universal defense of choice, but as the threat has grown, so has the range of countermeasures. Shells are now available to fire entanglement nets rather than buckshot, taking a drone down without endangering others in the area.

The next step up is the anti-drone drone. It, too, can be fitted to fire a net, sometimes one with a parachute to bring the offending drone down intact. Further options include homing devices or radar guidance to the targeted drone, or a net attachment to bring the prey back aboard.

And speaking of prey, Dutch authorities are experimenting with trained birds of prey to attack drones. Opens up a whole new aspect of falconry, doesn’t it?

More sophisticated yet are electronic countermeasures. Developed for the military, some are now available for private purchase. The simplest systems jam a drone’s control signal to crash it. Others override the signal, taking control to bring the drone aboard for examination. The ultimate is a system that not only takes over the drone, but also locates and identifies the operator.

If you like the idea of having a drone on board, there’s surely a model for you—but learn the rules and stay within them. Otherwise, you could be shot down worse than that time at the high school dance.

And back then, you didn’t risk serious men in dark suits showing up afterward.

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