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Drone Crash: Lost Episodes

The Crash

I spend a lot of time in the mountains, and this trip was no different. I was excited to shoot many places that I had been before where I knew an aerial photography would be an advantage and a completely different perspective. Where I crashed was actually not one of those places. On a whim, I remembered one of the old mining dams on Henson creek just west of Lake City, CO off a dirt road that leads to Engineer pass and on to Silverton.

Lost episodes from Casey Bieker on Vimeo.

This particular dam was in a canyon or gorge about 120ft. deep and had been an old mining dam that failed long ago and made for an interesting landmark. I had flown numerous times on this trip in somewhat risky situations over water and in some moderately deep canyons, but this one was a little different. I will explain why soon enough.

Phantom 4 Pro crash.

Informative view from the DJI Go app of the Phantom 4 Pro drone crash.

I was descending to shoot the lower portion of the dam and work my way back up. Even though I went through some pre-flight planning and knew there was a very good chance I would lose GPS signal down in the canyon, I thought I would have sufficient time to back out, using what is called “Attitude Mode” should the drone start acting up. The key word there is “time.” Even though my thought process was on track, it was probably less than 5 seconds between when the drone lost GPS signal and when it crashed into the dam at nearly full speed. Not really enough time to formulate a good recovery plan.

So where did I go wrong or was it even pilot error? There are usually two main reasons for drone crashes and really aviation in general: equipment malfunction or pilot error. For a while I thought it was the first, I thought the drone had taken off without reason, and it wasn’t my fault. This notion slowly began to fade away the more I kept running the situation through my mind.

Modern drones such as the Phantom 4 Professional are a very advanced piece of tech. If they are functioning properly, they really don’t want to crash and they have the capability to prevent a lot of pilot error…if you let them. The newer DJI drones have some great collision avoidance features, but if you turn them off, they don’t provide any benefit. There are certainly instances where it is necessary to turn off collision avoidance (if you are comfortable) if you don’t want the drone stopping and beeping at you every time you try to move. Personally, I think it makes sense to leave it on and turn it off as needed rather than the other way around.

My first mistake was that I didn’t have the collision avoidance turned on. This would have most likely prevented me from playing chicken with a giant concrete wall.

My second mistake was I did not know the drone’s systems as well as I should have, such as how it would react to the situation at hand. I mentioned earlier that this canyon was a little different than the ones I had previously been flying in. Not only was this canyon deeper, but I believe I had been somewhat lucky in the other canyons because nearly all of them ran north-south, which left them largely open for GPS satellite reception. In this case with Henson creek, the canyon ran east-west, with a mountain obstructing the view to the south. In my previous flights, when the GPS cut out, it was much more gradual and controllable; I was able to react and easily get out of harm’s way. That was not the case here. The GPS was lost instantly and a lesser-known backup system took over called Vision Positioning System (VPS).

Vision Positioning is quite impressive when you know how it works and it’s limitations. It can provide a lot of stability, in most cases more precisely than GPS! But it does not know the difference between ground and water, and if it thinks the ground is moving, most likely it will too, trying to get a lock on something static. I am confident that VPS is why it took off like a shot and didn’t allow me the time to react like I had with previous flights.

I wanted to blame the crash on the drone’s lack of situational awareness, but in the end, it’s really on me. I am the “Pilot in Command” as the FAA would say, and it is my responsibility to know my drone. I should have disabled the VPS, which would have forced the Phantom 4 to switch to Attitude mode when it lost GPS, and I could have reacted accordingly.

When GPS was lost and VPS kicked in, the drone was looking for static ground to grab onto to maintain a hover. Instead it found a raging whitewater creek below, moving at high speed so it grabbed onto that and took off at the same speed as the creek smashing into the bottom of the dam and dropping directly into the creek.

I spent over two hours looking for my Phantom 4 Pro in every way I could but since it was such a rugged area and the creek was running so high, I was not able to effectively get to the actual crash site. If I am able to go back later in the summer when the water is running much lower maybe I will have a recovery story to add to this blog hopefully along with how amazingly waterproof and tough modern SD cards are.

What can you do better?

So what can you do to avoid the same fate?

Don’t get too comfortable when things are going well and don’t assume it can’t happen to you.

Always ask yourself some questions before you fly:

Is it safe to fly here?

Should obstacle avoidance be turned on/off?

Will I lose GPS signal? If so, how will the drone react when it does?

Will I lose remote signal and if so, do I have my “return to home” set appropriately?

Could the wind conditions be significantly different where the drone will be as opposed to the home location?

If you don’t already have your drone insured GET INSURANCE! Even though the memory card may be more irreplaceable, the blow of losing an expensive drone is easier to cope with knowing you only have to pay a smaller deductible vs. full price for a new drone.

Make sure to have your name and contact information somewhere on the drone. If you are lucky, someone nice will find it and want to return it. Make it easy for them!

I am not proud that I had such a catastrophic crash and am disappointed that I was not able to recover my memory card with so much data on it. If there was one more tip I could offer, it is to change your memory cards before each new location. Use smaller memory cards and change them often as opposed to relying on one large card.

I hope that I can pass on some knowledge to help others and prevent the same thing from happening to them. Even though this was a frustrating situation, I have learned a lesson and am a better pilot because of it. Have a good time out there and be safe


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