Something drone operators may not be aware of OR, perhaps hope to never have to use during a leisurely day of flying or on a commercial job, is the “Find my Drone” feature in the DJI line of flight apps.
Living in such a connected world, most of us already have a slew of electronic devices to keep track of: watches, Phones, Tablets, Headphones, etc., just to name a few. With all these devices comes the possibility to “misplace” said device. Services like Apple’s “find my…” have become a familiar way of life to many of us.
Just like misplaced electronic devices and wearables, as drone operators, we might find ourselves in a situation where we will need to locate a downed DJI drone. Thank goodness for the aforementioned DJI “find my drone” feature, included in quite a few different DJI flight apps.
“Find my Drone” uses the DJI flight apps map to pinpoint the Remote Controls’ current location (you) and the last known location of the drone. Some of the DJI apps that include the Find My Drone feature are the DJI Fly and the DJI Go 4 apps.
For the purposes of this article we will focus on the newer DJI Fly app which supports the following drones:
- Mavic Mini
- DJI Mini 2
- DJI Mini SE
- Mavic Air 2
- DJI Air 2S
- DJI FPV
- DJI Mavic 3
What are some of the reasons drones get lost?
Here are some of the common causes of downed or lost drones:
- The pilot was trying to squeeze every single iota of power out of the drone (ignoring/canceling the in-app warnings) and then it force-landed, after the battery got critically low.
- The battery transmitted errors mid-air and force-landed (battery damaged errors).
- Clipping objects that might be in the drone’s path, i.e., tree branches and leaves, thus causing the drone to crash.
- The drone malfunctioned, power cut off, and the drone proceeded to fall out of the sky.
- Bird strikes (which is a common thing here in Florida).
- GPS signal is lost and signal to the Remote Control is lost, effectively leaving the pilot blind, if out of VLOS (visual line of site).
Flying out of VLOS or simply losing line of sight momentarily during any of the above reasons can cause one to lose track of their drone for good when it gets grounded.
How to use the Find My Drone feature
Ok, so now the worst has happened: you had an eye on your drone the entire flight, everything was going great, and a gust of wind grabs and tosses your beloved drone into a group of trees a few hundred feet away, regardless of your efforts to keep it controlled.
Or worse yet, your drone suffers a flyaway and the drone is so far away you cannot even see where it might have gone down! In the camera view of the DJI Fly app, all you see are trees and grass and more trees.
Do not become immediately alarmed. There are three ways to access the Find My Drone feature in the DJI Fly app.
The First Way
If the drone is still on and you still have a GPS signal (the battery didn’t pop out upon crash landing), the first step would be to press the 3-dot menu on the upper right-hand side of the app, then under the “Safety” tab (the first tab), scroll down to the bottom where you will see “Find My Drone”.
Press “Find My Drone”
The blue dot is you, as the operator, and where you are located (this information is tied to the DJI Fly app running the Remote Control). The little triangle is the drone. Above the drone, there should be a dialogue box that tells the missing duration of the drone, in minutes.
However, for this article, the screenshots taken of my DJI Fly app were done when my drone was not physically turned on, nor downed or missing, so the “Missing Duration” dialogue box does not show.
The initial map-view of the Find My Drone screen is the standard view. On the right, you can choose your “layer” or map type. I generally have mine on “mixed” (even when flying) which is a combination of satellite and standard. This view, many times, can assist a bit more, as it’ll show the surrounding areas in slightly more detail.
Once you have your drone pinpointed on your map, all you must do (with phone and controller in hand) is to walk in the drone’s direction, using your screen as a guide. Of course, if the drone had a flyaway and is quite some distance, you might opt for another method of transport to get to the drone’s general location.
You’ll be able to tell you are getting closer to the drone, as the dot will physically, on the map, move closer to the drone’s location. Once the dot is in close proximity to the drone, you should be really close to the drone and able to see it.
However, the drone might be hard to see physically, either because of the surrounding brush, or it might be located up in a tree. If you have difficulty spotting the drone, another nice feature within the find my drone screen is the ability to start flashing the drone’s lights and have it audibly beep, continuously.
This sequence can be initiated by pressing “Start Flashing and Beeping” on the screen.
Note that during a bright day or in a bright area, the flashing LEDs might be hard, if not, impossible to see.
Now that the drone has been located, you can simply press the “Stop Flashing and Beeping” option that now shows up and you are good to go.
The Second, Simpler Way
While in the camera view, instead of pressing the 3-dot menu, you can simply press the Map View (if you are not in Radar View). The Map View screen will maximize, and, on the right, you will see the “Find My Drone” feature. After going into the feature, all prior steps after accessing the feature are the same.
The Third Way: If the drone is off, dead battery, or no GPS signal
What if the drone is off and has been missing for some time, is it still possible to use the Find My Drone feature? Absolutely. Keep in mind, though, that the Find My Drone feature will display the last known location of the drone when it was powered up and had a GPS signal.
For the purpose of documentation, I had my drone off (mentioned previously). The steps to use the Find My feature are slightly different.
Instead of being in camera view in the Fly App, you’d go to the Fly apps main page (prior to connecting to the drone) and press “Profile”.
On the right side of the screen, you will see “Find My Drone”. Press that.
This will then bring you to the now-familiar Find My Drone screen. You will see your current position as a circle and the last known location of the drone as a triangle.
You will still be able to change the layers on the map to the view you are comfortable with. However, one option that is no longer available is the “Start Flashing and Beeping” option, as the drone no longer has battery power.
Ways to keep an eye on your drone
Many of us have heard the old phrase “prevention is the best medicine”. That also applies to flying drones. If we can see the drone the entire flight, it’ll be easier to locate it if it happens to suffer from one of the above-mentioned scenarios.
Maintain VLOS (Visual Line of Sight)
In the United States, it is required that drone operators maintain visual line of sight with their drones during a flight. This just means that either the drone operator or their designated visual observer needs to keep an eye on the drone without any type of physical obstruction blocking their view, such as trees, buildings, or even fog and clouds, just to name a few.
Maintaining visual line of sight is also a safety precaution, ensuring no individual, property, or manned aircraft (plane or helicopter) is in danger from the drone.
Lighted visual aids
A fairly inexpensive item that can be affixed to the drone to aid in seeing it better, in various lighting situations are LED lights.
Yes, all DJI drones have some sort of LED lighting on them. Many of these are to aid in determining the orientation of the drone (through use of red or green LEDs), however, they might not be bright enough for you to keep an eye on the drone in every lighting scenario or orientation of the drone (the sides).
LED lights that are FAA approved for manned aircraft to be able to see the drone up to 3 miles away can be VERY useful for keeping an eye on the drone, even during daytime hours. I personally have three additional aftermarket LED lights affixed to each drone in my fleet.
There are quite a few offerings from various manufacturers that can be mounted to the DJI drones mentioned in this article.
None of us ever wants to have a flyaway or a downed drone and I wish this upon no one. But it is great to know that in the worst-case scenario of a lost drone, we do have the ability to locate it, hopefully, safe and sound.