The Britannia Beaver – A tale of difficult calibration and swirling winds on the English Channel

And so it was time for us to board the Britannia Beaver. The mission was to get some unique shots from the air of a dredger which had never been done before from a drone.

It was a particularly fine morning, this somewhat lulled us into a false sense of security. We knew it was going to be risky, of course, we were about to fly a very expensive drone off the back of a ship with absolutely zero room for error. You can’t stop a dredger to retrieve a drone… Even if you could, they don’t float.

After steaming from Southampton to a few miles off the Needles the ship was in the correct position to start dredging. It was now time to get the aerial shots.

The difficulty was where we could actually take off from. There’s not much deck space on a dredger but we chose what we thought would be our best site, on the port side of the ship, clear of the dredging arm and relatively free of overhanging obstacles. But still with the same unforgiving sea just over the edge, goading us with its potentially ruinous grasp.

The drone, removed from its flight case, shining in the sun, impressed all the curious eyes of the ship’s crew, an amazing piece of technology about to be launched into the sky. Now, each time you fly the drone in a new location you must calibrate its sensors so it knows whereabouts it is on the planet via compasses and GPS, no problem. Actually today it was a problem. After what seemed to be hours I lost count of the amount of times we had error after error trying to calibrate our flying camera. The long and short of it is, we were stood on top of 5000 tonnes of steel. Now, that can play havoc with a drone’s sensitive instruments, and it will not let you fly unless it’s happy, which given our precarious situation only really added to the suspense.

Eventually, we found a secondary location on the ship where finally we managed to get it calibrated. There was a lot less room in our substitute location, and everything around was much, much harder than the rather fragile drone, really no room for error. The weather, albeit a bit brisk was still largely on our side and given this successful calibration it was now or never. JJ – the pilot – started up the drone and it took off, carefully ascending into to sky and… Over the sea it goes! This is it, too much concentration to be nervous but the sentiment remains, if the drone suddenly decides it’s not happy for whatever reason, as it has been 99% of the time till now, it was going to get very wet and we’re pretty confident it wouldn’t float.

It was a success. The drone, high in the sky flew around the ship. Somehow, we didn’t feel like pushing our luck and so as soon as we achieved some incredible and unique views of our host Britannia Beaver JJ carefully brought the drone back down. The relief as he skillfully landed was clear to see… The memory card was swiftly removed and put into the safety of the “let’s keep that” bag.

We tried a few more times a later on, with many, many more calibration errors and eventually got another flight but this time the wind out in the channel was far more savage, and despite take off and a short flight it felt like this was pushing it too far. The drone came back in, back in the flight case and one of the hardest flights of JJs career (so far!) was a resounding success.

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