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When Drone Flights Go Wrong (What Not to Do)

There is a saying in the drone world I didn’t want to believe. And then it happened to me.

“It’s not if you crash your drone; it’s when…”

This has rung true in the ears of plenty of drone operators, both hobbyists and professionals alike, myself included. Sadly, regardless of how careful we might be as pilots, there are sometimes external forces beyond our control that might cause our aircraft to “hit the dirt”, so to speak.

We will be looking at various situations where drone flights ended in crashes or damaged, lost equipment. Some of these crashes may be due to human error, others due to environmental influences. 

We will also discuss hazardous pilot attitudes identified by the FAA and how addressing these may lessen some chances of flights going wrong.

For this article, professional and hobbyist operators using a variety of drones were contacted by Droneblog. Their experiences and solutions will be discussed here.

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The Types of Issues That Can Occur During a Drone Flight

When looking closer at the various situations where drones have crashed or almost crashed, many are caused by conditions outside of our control.

Some examples are as follows:

  • Signal interference
  • Geofencing
  • GPS errors
  • Updated software
  • Nature (animals and weather conditions)

We will also look at one cause for crashes that is common but not out of our control:

  • Pilot Error

As was mentioned prior, quite a few drone operators (both casual and professional) participated in recent discussions held by Droneblog, in various drone-related groups, to swap stories and share insight into conditions that have caused the loss of drones or personal property.

Below is just a tiny fraction of those experiences and insights.

Interference

When speaking of interference, we are talking about electronic interference that is commonly found in densely-populated areas or suburbs.

In the below user’s case though, the electronic interference was an unexplained oddity that caused damage to the drone.

Jetflyer had this to say:

My first crash was due to some sort of electronic field coming from a building. We were on the boardwalk at (location redacted).

I had launched the drone and was pointing the drone toward downtown when it banked 45 degrees and headed for a building. I had no control. Then I heard the drone hit the glass windows.

When we got over to the crash site, there was a maintenance worker that showed us the wreckage of the drone. It impacted while flying backward!

That’s where all the damage was. The rear propeller motors were dislodged from the arms, the battery door was cracked and the battery was dislodged.

The micro SD card came out, losing 70 minutes of capture. He told us there is an electrical field around the building that messes up people’s car fobs – they don’t work to unlock the cars.

I believe that the electronic field grabbed the drone and sent it into the glass.

Donnie Frank’s experience:

As everybody knows, if your drone loses signal, it will RTH (Return to Home). But if it’s bombarded with an ERRONEOUS signal, it can cause it to behave erratically, which is exactly what happened to my drone before crashing to the ground below.

To my huge discredit, I ignored the erratic behavior of my drone and tried to fly the mission without a signal booster and without changing the channel to 12 (which is the only usable channel in that area).

I have THREE sites I fly with this much interference. So from now on when I fly these sites, I find the “least interference” channel and use a parabolic antenna signal booster to focus the signal on the drone. I also monitor closely the uplink strength throughout the entire mission.

So far, flying the above site for a little under a year post-crash, I’ve had no problems or incidences.

Geofencing

Ah, geofencing. In the world of camera drones, geofencing is almost akin to a “bad word”.

For those new to flying drones, geofencing restricts a drone from entering various airspace or geographical zones through a combination of the manufacturer’s flight software and firmware.

Geofencing can be likened to an invisible fence that restricts your ability to fly from, within, or through certain predetermined zones without prior authorization and customizable unlocks, as found on some popular drone lines.

» MORE: Geofencing on Drones

With that said, here is an interesting example of how geofencing caused the loss of a drone for one drone operator named Herein2021:

I have been flying drones professionally since 2014 and have only ever lost one drone. I was flying about 0.5 miles from a geofenced zone while filming a yacht party when suddenly the drone said that I was in a no-fly zone and force descended right into the ocean .

I never had that problem before and hadn’t updated my iPad Mini, the app, or the firmware in the drone since 2016 until a week before when I had to get a new app to fly a newer drone.

The very next flight with this particular drone is when this happened. I am convinced that the drone manufacturer added the zone to the flight apps database when I installed the second app for the newer alternate drone.

GPS-Related

In the world of camera drones, having GPS and a solid GPS count-lock is essential for not only ensuring the drone has a stable hover, but in guaranteeing it can return home (RTH) in an emergency situation.

Here is a lesson learned by Tunadoctor about GPS in a drone:

I was impatient about getting a GPS fix before flying, as I was going to do a very short over-the-water flight.

As I launched the drone, it took off out of my control. I thought I dumped it. I remembered to look at the iPhone and saw that it was over the water somewhere.

Then I recalled that I had a return to home utility. So I used it. Amazingly, the drone reappeared nearby overhead and I landed it.

Lesson learned. I will always get a GPS fix before flying and recalibrate the compass when the drone signals to do so. I was fortunate not to injure anyone or lose the drone.

Flight App Software Update

Like with Herein2021’s geofencing issue, app updates can cause various types of drone flight problems to be aware of.

Here is what 2Xxwv had to say:

I am not sure what happened to my drone, which always worked fine. On the occasions when it lost signal, it always came home to my home point.

I did an update last week and headed out to fly. After about 5 minutes, the screen on my iPad Mini lost the camera feed, then all input control.

It was around three hundred feet away when this happened. I watched it track about a mile and a half out to sea and that was the end of my drone…

After this, I do a check of everything at a close low altitude before doing any normal flying. Please be careful and do a complete inspection before flying after any updates.

Weather Conditions

In countless cases of drones being lost, the main culprit is the weather, or more pointedly, the effect the weather can have on the drone or its many components.

Rubik3x has two cautionary tales when it comes to the effect that weather can have on a drone:

Situation 1 – I was using a drone with a full battery. It had been cold that night and the drone stayed in the car overnight.

In the morning I launched from a boat. While flying out, I received a low battery warning and then a critical battery warning.

The drone then auto-landed after just a few moments of flight. It hit the water and sank before we could get it in the boat.

Moral: Don’t fly with a cold battery, especially over water!

» MORE: Drone Battery Care

Situation 2 – In this case, I had another drone with a full battery. I flew up through a chilly fog layer. After a few minutes, the drone reached the top of the fog.

An “overheating battery” warning came on, followed by a “critical battery, landing now” warning. Thankfully, the drone came down in tall grass, without any damage. There was noticeable ice on the rotors.

Moral: Don’t fly through freezing fog.

» MORE: How Does Weather Affect Drones?

Bird Strikes

Oftentimes, as drone operators, we might not think of living obstacles that can cause issues when flying such as birds. However, bird and drone collisions do happen!

In my case, I am diligent in locating the many predatory birds that inhabit much if not most of the areas I fly.

Although the following situation was personally painful for me to experience, I thought it would be a great addition to this article:

Generally, when I fly near waterways, I scan for birds and then ascend about 30 ft or so. There I leave the drone in hover briefly. If there is no aviary activity, I’ll start flying or lining up my shots.

I live in Florida and predator birds are the norm here (hawks, eagles, and ospreys). The ones that generally find interest in me, it seems, are ospreys.

When I’m doing real estate work, I’ll oftentimes get targeted by these birds. The best way to avoid them once they target and harass you is to ascend quickly.

Birds can’t ascend 90 degrees (but they CAN descend faster than us), so you’ll generally leave them once the left stick is pulled up. Once they are out of the area, using the Air 2S’ superhuman descent speed is great.

With this particular bird incident over the Gulf Coast of Florida, I took the drone out and did my usual song-and-dance with the hover and wait. I didn’t see or hear anything.

So I began moving forward slowly, pulling in for a shot of the pier I was wanting to capture. The bird was waiting BEHIND me in a tree. No noise, nothing. Once the drone moved, the bird hit it hard.

The bird was moving so fast that I didn’t even have time to react. Because I was only 30ft up or so, I didn’t have the reaction time to even try and “stick pull diagonal in” to restart the motors…or even barely pull up on the left stick in case the motors were on.

So…a few seconds later I’m emptying my pockets, taking off my socks and shoes, and jumping into the ocean. I retrieved the drowned and damaged drone and sent it back to the manufacturer.

Pilot Error

Up to this point, most of the personal experiences described in this guide were based on outside influences.

The following are instances where the pilots have agreed that human oversight or pilot error was the culprit.

Zbip57 relates:

My most embarrassing crash occurred with an older drone.

The original controller didn’t have a self-centering throttle stick. It was on a ratchet that would stick at whichever position it was set to, so it was sometimes difficult to find the exact mid-point to hold a constant altitude.

Another contributing factor was the GoPro camera. The GoPro has quite a fish-eye lens, so it’s difficult to gauge how close one is actually to any obstacle.

I was doing a video of my friend’s model sailboat. Looking just at the video monitor to frame the shots, it was difficult to tell whether the drone was sinking or just how close the drone was to touching the water.

I had to look up frequently to check if it was still high enough. But with a direct line of sight, it’s difficult to judge distance. Is the drone behind or on this side of the boat?

At one of those moments when I was switching between watching the monitor or direct line-of-sight, I managed to fly my drone smack into his model sailboat! Eeeek!

Capt KO’s experience is one many might relate to:

Be aware of your surroundings in QuickShots.

My first attempt had my wife and me happily waving at the drone as it flew backward right into a tree.

We watched in horror as my new drone fell through the branches only to see it recover unaided and I was able to regain control. Lesson learned.

My attempt at adding cheap aftermarket pontoons didn’t end so well. Not from water, but lack of control made it decide the garage door was a good place to go. Oh well, just glad I’m good at repairs.

RadioFlyerMan’s story is one that actually had a happy ending, as the drone was recovered and a friend made:

The crash was totally my fault. It was cloudy and overcast while trying to get low shots of the river.

Once I crashed, I realized, with a sinking feeling, that I was in deep trouble as it started to rain heavily while I tried to search for the drone, find its location and assess the potential for recovery… and it was getting dark.

It was like attending Mozart’s funeral in the movie “Amadeus”.

RadioFlyerMan’s story doesn’t end there, however.

I personally had the opportunity to watch the video RadioFlyerMan created with the footage from the drone, including the final crash. It was difficult to watch and quite sad!

The story had a great outcome, as, after a “call to arms” was announced in one of the forums, a fellow group member took the 1,500-mile round trip from his home state (with his wife) to look for the drone.

Keeping constant communication with RadioFlyerMan and while in treacherous conditions requiring a kayak, the drone was recovered in working condition.

After all was said and done, RadioFlyerMan and the group member that found the drone are now great friends because of this experience.

Thoughts

Oftentimes when we hear of crashes, it is generally assumed pilot error was involved. Looking closer at some of the aforementioned crashes, there were quite a few outside influences that caused collisions and loss of property.

In other cases, it was a combination of external influences and pilot error that caused the crashes.

Looking at these user cases, as drone operators, we can see areas where more diligence can be employed to foresee issues and avoid them, or take the appropriate steps once in them to get out of them safely.

As the saying goes: prevention is the best medicine.

Hazardous Pilot Attitudes

When looking closer at various types of crashes involving drones, the FAA has identified five hazardous attitudes for drone operators to be aware of when flying.

While not all drone crashes can be tied to hazardous attitudes, we will go through what the five attitudes are, the definition of said attitude, a brief example of the attitude, and what to do to counter the attitude (antidote).

The five hazardous attitudes are:

  • Anti-authority
  • Impulsivity
  • Invulnerability
  • Macho
  • Resignation

1. Anti-Authority

As it sounds, this attitude means that a drone operator does not like anyone telling them what to do, especially those in an authoritative capacity (i.e., police or the FAA).

This attitude manifests itself when the drone operator decides to fly outside of the laws and regulations put in place. An example of this is flying higher than 400 feet in the US (when not within the 400-foot radius of a taller object).

The way to counter this attitude is by simply following the rules, as they are in place for everyone’s safety. That’s the most important thing to remember.

2. Impulsivity

This attitude is where a drone operator just wants to do something immediately. This attitude is more common in those who are new to flying drones.

The danger in this trait is that flight safety procedures and checklists may be skipped because the operator just wants to get in the air, ignoring possible signs of potential issues or threats.

To counter this attitude, one would simply need to slow down and think first.

3. Invulnerability

This one goes back to the opening statements in the article, particularly: “It’s not if you crash your drone, it’s when…”

Yes, the invulnerability attitude is simply when one feels accidents only happen to other drone pilots.

Because of this type of attitude, one might take unnecessary chances and risks, thinking these risks have been done countless times before without an accident or incident, so why be concerned now.

As a few of our user cases have shown, accidents can easily happen when we least expect them, even while doing a flight or mission we have completed time and time again.

The counter to this attitude is to realize that it could indeed happen “to me” and to stay watchful and at the ready.

4. Macho

As silly as this one sounds, it is indeed a real attitude in the drone community.

This attitude is where someone is trying to prove that they are better than anyone else when flying their drone.

This attitude is not limited to just men, as women may suffer from this as well. The macho attitude is akin to the “here, hold my beer and watch this…”

Professional pilots and drone operators have pointed to this attitude being a major culprit in many aviation disasters and drone crashes.

To counter this attitude, one would have to realize that taking chances is foolish and consider the consequences should something go wrong.

5. Resignation

Resignation is where a drone operator basically gives up in a bad situation or potential crash, feeling like there is no use trying.

In this case, there are times when an individual might feel the situation is hopeless and stop trying. Say, when a drone gets a mind of its own, disconnects, and flies miles out.

While this is indeed a scary situation, others in this same scenario don’t give up, but instead simply press RTH (return to home) and watch their drone return to them minutes later.

Of course, that is just a basic and simple example.

However, there are tons more examples where a drone operator “fighting to the end” was able to retrieve their drone or keep it from crashing.

RadioFlyerMan’s story is such an example of someone who didn’t give up and the drone was eventually found with the help of another drone operator.

The simple antidote to resignation is never giving up, or “fighting to the very end”.

A Word of Thanks

Hopefully, this article proves useful to new drone hobbyists and seasoned ones alike.

We especially would like to thank those drone operators in the various drone communities that were kind enough to share their experiences.

Some of these stories might have been embarrassing but will hopefully serve as learning experiences.

Happy and safe flying!