December 18, 2020
Underwater drones armed with high-definition cameras allow hardwater anglers to explore and understand the world beneath the ice like never before. While stationary underwater cameras remain incredible tools for assessing conditions and confirming the presence, size, species, and mindset of fish beneath your hole, they’re limited to vertical use from fixed positions. Submersible, remote-controlled drones expand your explorations exponentially with each deployment.
Underwater drones—or remote-operated vehicles (ROVs)—built for commercial duties have been around for years, but their large size and hefty price tags have kept them off most anglers’ radar. Likely fueled by the success of consumer aerial drones, a growing crop of less costly submersibles is becoming more widely available every winter. Not all drones are created equal, of course. A variety of considerations should be weighed when shopping for a drone that fits your budget and needs.
Battery Life: Nothing kills a dive like a dead battery. Drones rely on battery power to operate their thrusters, camera, and more. Fortunately, “flying” under water requires less juice than staying aloft during airborne adventures, and you can typically find drones with beefy batteries offering runtimes from 2 to 4 hours or more. Keep in mind, gentle dives in still water burn power more slowly than fast-paced dives in current. Besides runtime, note how long it takes to charge the battery.
Price: Drones aren’t cheap, but neither are high-end sonar/GPS or conventional underwater camera systems. For $800 to $3,000 you can invest in a quality drone setup flush with features to help you explore the depths and capture crisp, clear footage along the way. Prices are dropping, though, and at least one decent drone has recently slipped below the $500 barrier, so it pays to shop smart.
Dive Depth: If your fishing grounds are shallow flats and other spots in 30 feet of water or less, most drones fill the bill. To explore deeper territory, make sure the drone is rated for your target depth. Many drones can handle 100-foot dives with ease, and some are rated for depths of 300 feet or more.
Camera: Don’t skimp on the camera if you’re hoping for detailed views, stills, and video clips. Look for a drone equipped with a high-definition 4K camera capable of delivering high-res (say, 1,080-pixel) live feedback and video streaming, and capturing crisp 8- to 12-megapixel color still photos. Also compare lenses, sensors, and other features affecting the quality and size of the images you can record and share. Image stabilization and color correction features can be a big plus, too.
Thrusters: Like mini outboard props, a drone’s thrusters provide propulsion. In general, the more thrusters the drone has, the more maneuverable it will be. Two is on the low end, with four to six standard.
Speed: Cruising speed determines how quickly you can cover water and is also big factor when fighting even modest currents. Three to four knots or roughly 5 to 6¾ feet per second is pretty standard, so beware of drones with slower top-end cruising speeds. Be forewarned, the drone will typically swim much slower when using thrusters to rise or descend in the water column.
Size: Make no mistake, most drones dwarf traditional underwater cameras in weight and dimensions, meaning you might need to heft an extra 10 to 15 or more pounds of gear (including camera, case, and controls) and cut a super-sized hole to hit the water. There are exceptions: the CHASING Dory weighs less than 3 pounds and measures just 9.7 x 7.4 x 3.6 inches in size.
Tethers: Because the underwater world isn’t conducive to the radio signals used for controlling a drone or providing high-quality video feedback from the camera, many underwater drones are equipped with an umbilical tether. Tethers come in a variety of lengths, so check to be sure the length matches your goals for underwater exploration during a single dive. Dealing with a cable may seem like a downside, but it’s also peace of mind. If something goes awry underwater—say, the battery dies—you can always haul your drone in by hand.
A few wirelessly controlled, untethered drones are available. But these are generally for shallow-water only. And if the drone swims out of range, you’re out of luck. Autonomous drones are also available, which can follow you as you swim or dive, though this isn’t a selling point for most ice anglers.
Added Amenities: Some drones offer additional fishing friendly bells and whistles. The PowerRay Wizard, for example, offers on-board sonar for detecting fish up to 40 meters beneath the drone, plus an add-on to carry a hook or lure and drop it wherever you choose. Imagine, horizontal retrieves under the ice.
In a similar vein, look at features boosting ease-of-use such as simplified controls and a range of operating modes that allow you to breeze into the role of a drone pilot. Also keep an eye out for fun features and available apps that make saving and sharing your adventures a snap.
Drone Highlight: PowerRay
PowerVision designed the PowerRay to revolutionize fishing—including ice fishing—and the feature-rich underwater drone certainly helps lift the veil from the icy realm beneath the ice.
The PowerRay is available in three versions, the Explorer, Angler, and Wizard. All feature an integrated 4K UHD 12-megapixel camera with 1,080-pixel real-time streaming, 4-knot swim speed, 98-foot diving depth, LED lighting, video stabilizing and hovering modes, one vertical and two horizontal thrusters, internal Wi-Fi for image transmission, and 4-hour dive time per charge (light use, still water).
Both the Explorer and Angler offer 32 GB storage and come with a 50-meter cable. The Angler and Wizard sport PowerSeeker fishfinding sonar and a Fishing Suit option that delivers a hook or lure to the hotspot of your choice. The Wizard package also includes Zeiss VR ONE Plus goggles, PowerSeeker Fishfinder sonar, 64-GB storage, 70-meter cable, and hard-sided carry-on-style case. The Wizard lists for $999 but we’ve seen new packages on Amazon as low as $599. powervision.me
Aqua-Vu HDi Gen 2
On the conventional camera front, Aqua-Vu’s next-generation HDi Series cameras feature a suite of sweet upgrades, from the lens to the LCD, that raise the bar in underwater visibility. Sheltered in an expandable, modular XD Camera Housing, the new 1080-pixel cameras enhance sharpness and detail under varying light conditions.
Prescription-grade OptiRX lenses provide a distortion-free picture of what the multi-exposure optics see—helping to detect and display background images such as fish and vegetation in greater detail. Meanwhile, the system’s new Auto-Clear Technology adjusts white balance and adds natural colors back into the video image, clarifying the image even in off-colored, stained, or moderately dirty water.
Ice-fishing-ready Aqua-Vu HDi Gen 2 models include the HD10i Pro, HD10i, HD7i Pro, and HD7i. Suggested retails run from $599 to $999. aquavu.com
*Dan Johnson of Isanti, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications.