The Airborne Crow’s Nest and Modern Navigation

crow's nest

By Harry Valentine 2018-10-09 19:11:18

The old wind driven sailing ships of early periods included a small observation deck nicknamed the crow’s nest located high above the deck and built on to one of the masts. One of the sailors would climb to the crow’s nest with a telescope to gain a long range view of the surroundings from higher elevation. During the early 20th century, some naval ships towed a balloon that carried a gondola from where crew members could gain a long range view. Evolving maritime technology could create new application for an airborne micro technology that can provide a long range view. 


The development of early dhow vessels coincided with advances in astronomy that assisted night time navigation. Navigation by stars provided an accurate idea of latitude, allowing early maritime traders to discover that a spice trading city in southwestern India shared the same latitude as the southern entrance to the Red Sea. The increasing size of wind driven ships built with multiple masts made possible the installation of an observation platform on one of the masts, high above the deck. The elevated vantage point increased the range of vision for mariners and especially when approaching land. 

The introduction of steam power led to the development of much larger ships, built to mush greater length, width and height. Following the era of the towed balloon, the invention of radar technology allowed the remotely located terrain observation technology to be installed high on a ship. Radar and sonar technology served the maritime sector well, given the low to moderate sailing speed of most commercial civilian vessels. The possible introduction of high-speed winged boats to oceanic travel would require the installation of observation technology high above ocean surface.

Vessel Speed and Observation

The high rate of speed of which winged boats are capable requires that the navigation crew have a view of marine traffic conditions perhaps as much as 50 or 60 miles ahead of the speeding vessel. If the winged vessel were to tow an airborne observation technology that would fly at an elevation of 2,600 feet (800 meters) above water level, it could provide information about the seascape up to 100 kilometers (60 miles) ahead of the speeding winged vessel. Winged vessel crew would know the location, speed and sailing direction of other vessels and have one to two minutes to undertake corrective action.

As the winged vessel leaves port, either from land-based coastal runway or from a seaplane runway, winged observation technology would be launched by reeling out a tether installed on top of the winged vessel. As the vessel accelerates to greater speed, a tether would be further reeled out until the “eye-in-the-sky” reaches the required elevation flight. It would carry aeronautical lights to alert other aircraft of its presence. The tether may include both power cable and optical cable to supply the flying observation unit with aviation lighting and operate the observation/transmission technology.

Scale Model Flight Technology

The observation vehicle would be the equivalent of a towed scale model glider carrying observation technology such as radar and television, except built to greatly more rugged structural standards. For operation in winter weather, the flight unit may need to be built with electric heaters under the upper surface of its wings, to melt ice that could otherwise build up on top of the wings and impair flight. The tethered flight unit could include a turbine that drives an electrical generator to provide electric power for aviation lights and to operate the high-elevation observation unit.

To assure ruggedness and longevity, the small flight unit could be built from any of several modern lightweight, high-strength materials such as carbon fiber or other super material. Advances in optical lens technology would allow for development and installation of a light weight camera along with modern radar technology that would collect data from the terrain ahead and provide on a screen, the equivalent of a daytime high-elevation view of the terrain so as to improve night time navigation. The technology would be applicable on the ocean as well as along navigable waterways with unlimited overhead clearance.

Arrival at Destination

As the winged vessel slows on approach to a destination port, the airborne observation unit would be retracted through reeling in the cable. If the airborne unit receives electric power from the winged vessel, it could be built with the rotors of a drone helicopter or quadcopter to allow it to remain aloft so as to provide the navigation crew with a high elevation view of the terminal area. The high elevation view could help guide the crew to navigate the winged vessel to its assigned parking location at the terminal.

Once the winged vessel is parked, the observation flight unit may be reeled in and depowered before undergoing a routine inspection prior to departure on a subsequent voyage. The unit could contain recording technology that would have recorded data relevant to is previous flight, information that could routinely be transferred into a larger land-based recording technology. Marine traffic density at some ports could pose a safety risk for winged boats arriving, except if the winged boat is a Type B version capable of 150 meters flight elevation and will touch down at and lift off from coastal airports.

The Bird Problem

Bird strikes are certainly a problem at commercial airports. The majority of birds live on land or at coastal areas near land, with few birds being far away from land. During seasonal migration, most migrating birds fly over land with very few flying over the ocean. Some varieties of geese that do migrate across ocean have been discovered flying at very high altitude where air is of low density. The combination of a tether connected to a flying observation unit should pose minimal danger to birds, given that the technology would be deployed away from coastal areas.


There has been a need for the past few centuries in the maritime sector to gain a view of the terrain from high elevation. It began with the crow’s nest followed by the towed balloon that was in turn followed by radar technology. High-speed transportation technology that travels close to the water surface requires the view from high elevation so that the crew would know what lies up to 60 miles ahead of the speeding vessel. The airborne observation technology could include both optical and radar technologies, with combination optical line and power line installed into the towing tether.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.