Tac Talks: The use of recreational drones while operationally deployed

Tac Talks No. 44
Tac Talks No. 44

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CMDR Mark Northcote

HMAS Diamantina has been operationally deployed ISO Operation RESOLUTE 2015 and Operation RENDER SAFE 2016 in recent years and during both operations utilised the cheap yet highly effective technology of a recreational drone. The drone was employed in a variety of ways including but not limited to; identification of navigational hazards in poorly charted waters, search for mine shapes and wrecks in shallow water, documenting destruction of explosive remnants of war (ERW) and live feed post blast damage assessment, identifying possible insertion points for boarding party, visual imagery of anchorages and berths in poorly surveyed waters and through contribution to Public Relations (PR) imagery gathering.

Advancements in recent recreational drone technology mean that a product like the DJI Phantom III drone is relatively cheap and offers a high fidelity video platform that can feed live imagery to the pilot back onboard the ship. The drone itself is small, manoeuvrable, simple to fly and difficult to visually identify. Its operating radius from the ship proved to be anywhere from 50 to 1000m horizontally displaced and able to fly to a height of up to 400m. This effective increase in height of eye potentially increased the visual horizon from 8NM to in excess of 30NM for a 6 foot tall individual standing on the bridge of a Minehunter Class vessel.

Whilst conducting fisheries patrols ISO Operation RESOLUTE in 2015 Diamantina captured some amazing imagery of destruction of a navigational hazard IVO Ashmore Reef. Benign conditions allowed the drone to fly beyond the blast area and film both the detonation and fly over the blast area to conduct a real time BDA. The technology allowed for the pilot to share with command a real time live feed image from 30m above the blast site and correlate the visual imagery with the reports received in from the divers in the dive boat. The drone also proved valuable whilst on patrol in waters south of Warrior Reef to the north of Thursday Island. These waters are relatively poorly surveyed and the imagery allowed command to assess potential landing sites on the Reef itself. Being able to safely insert seaboats to the shore is an important element of operating in remote poorly charted areas and imagery from above facilitates this.

Northern edge of Onua Island, Shortland Island Group in the Solomon Islands.
The northern edge of Onua Island, Shortland Island Group in the Solomon Islands.

More recently, during Operation RENDER SAFE 2016, Diamantina again utilised a DJI Phantom III drone to document and capture visual imagery of the ship’s exploits in the Solomon Islands. The eyes in the sky were particularly useful during mine-hunting operations in shallow waters where the water clarity and visibility were exceptional. Systematically sweeping a bay and hovering down on suspect contacts added a mine-hunting dimension not otherwise possible. This search method supplemented the ships sonar and divers underwater search tactics to locate ERW.

Utilising drone imagery to identify a submerged explosive remnant of war (ERW).
Utilising drone imagery to identify a submerged explosive remnant of war (ERW).

Gone are the days of old of having a lookout perched in the crow’s nest atop a mainmast but the value of having eyes on uncharted coral bommies and shelving reef on approach to an anchorage from an elevated position cannot be under-estimated. Whilst conducting recon in the Russell Island group to the West of Guadalcanal Island we made the decision to investigate a Copra Wharf in Yandina for suitability to berth there. After conducting an initial inspection with the dive boat the wharf was deemed suitable and we successfully berthed the ship at Yandina Wharf. The drone was then flown to take an aerial image of line configuration, depth of water and to document the structure the ship secured to. The image of Diamantina secured alongside this wharf is one of the more timeless visual records of Operation RENDER SAFE 2016.

Operation RENDER SAFE 2016 provided a valuable contribution to the South Pacific Region through engagement with local community and rendering safe areas of remote outlying islands from ERW.

Documenting and presenting this contribution is therefore extremely important.

To this end, a Public Relations team joined the ship in Honiara, captured imagery and interviewed members of the team in order to create a news video showcasing Diamantina’s contribution to the operation. An integral part of this video was imagery shot with the drone of a Mine Disposal Vehicle launch, boat work and aerial shots of diving operations. With minimal editing required the footage was spectacular and was promulgated through local media in the Solomon Islands and online on social media. Permission was sought, and gained, from the local authorities within the Solomon Islands and it was requested for use by the local authorities to locate a local crash site on Guadalcanal Island.

HMAS Diamantina berthed alongside Yandina Wharf, Russell Island Group, Solomon Islands.
HMAS Diamantina berthed alongside Yandina Wharf, Russell Island Group, Solomon Islands.

Whilst deployed to the Solomons Diamantina anchored in numerous bays that were poorly charted. Records of anchoring were maintained and the images of the ship at anchor taken from 200m were valuable in documenting safe harbour and identifying shoal areas that could then be reconciled back to the Foreign ENC and Admiralty Charts. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and this is evident in the image below of Diamantina at anchor in Roderick Bay, Solomon Islands. The wreck of the World Discoverer lies to the north and the shoal areas and safe water are clearly visible in this aerial image. Additionally the ability to conduct an aerial survey of operations of interest, such as a remote logging camp deep in the Shortland Island Group, provided valuable intelligence to CJTF.

HMAS Diamantina anchored in Roderick Bay, Nggela Island Group, Solomon Islands.
HMAS Diamantina anchored in Roderick Bay, Nggela Island Group, Solomon Islands.
A remote logging camp deep in the Shortland Islands, Solomon Islands.
A remote logging camp deep in the Shortland Islands, Solomon Islands.

The value that this drone added to the ship’s capability cannot be under estimated. For such a relatively inexpensive recreational piece of equipment it was heavily utilised during both operations and I expect will continue to be in the future. In the past the owner-operator has been the drone pilot but I see the potential for real return on investment in sending a dedicated phot to a drone operator course. There are civilian training programs out there that license drone operators and license them with CASA.

We send people to do photography courses and I consider this an extension of that training. For a deployed Minehunter Class vessel that has no incumbent aviation unit a $1500 package delivering eyes in the sky is a relatively inexpensive capability enhancement. To gain greater situational awareness, identify navigable waters and hazards to navigation and to document in high quality imagery of the ships’ activities.

Recreational drone operators.
Recreational drone operators.


  • SPEC: DJI Phantom III Drone/High quality 1080p still and video imagery.
  • Perspective: Altitude of 400m and functional displacement from the ship of approximately 1000m.
  • 64GB memory card made transferring imagery to personal laptop and then on to RHFIE relatively simple.
  • MHC has no embarked flight and “eyes in the sky” extremely valuable.
  • Videography utilised by RAN Media in compiling RENDER SAFE PR reports.
  • Documenting significant events: Berthing at an uncharted Wharf in the Russell Island Group, Yandina. Clearly detailed berthing configuration and depth of water.
  • During Operation RENDER SAFE the drone was utilised to identify potential insertion points for the sea boat and boarding party to poorly charted waters IVO the southern edge of South Warrior Reef. Channels, coral bommies and mudflats clearly identifiable.
  • Cost vs value add. Asymmetric value.
  • Image of HMAS Diamantina at anchor in Roderick Bay IVO World Explorer Solomon Islands.
  • Generates an organic PR capability.
  • Filming OOWMANs with HMA Ships Diamantina and Huon and HMNZS Manawanui.
  • Approved by the MCDTG to film destruction of explosive remnants of war with this media then utilised for PR campaign whilst on Operation RENDER SAFE 2016.
  • Enhanced operational capability.