Some people say that crashing your drone is part of the game and it will inevitably happen some day. Sure, flying a drone is risky business and crashes do happen. Sometimes tech fails at critical moment and sometimes it´s just old-fashioned “pilot error” that causes you to destroy your ﹩1500 flying camera.
But it doesn´t have to be like that. A bit like how airlines manage to safely fly hundreds of thousands of flights every year by sticking to strict rules and meticulously following processes you can reduce the risk of losing your drone by applying certain precautions.
These are some of the things I think and do to make sure I keep my equipment intact.
Plan your flight
I like to take photos and occasionally film video clips with my drone. I don´t usually fly around aimlessly just for the sake of it. (I think a lot of crashes happen when people are just messing around with their drones.) In order to get the shot I like to spend some time thinking where and how and to which angle I need to fly my drone in order to do it. Sometimes I take a look at the location on Google Maps to figure it out in advance. I think this is pretty much what any photographer does anyway, wether the camera is on the ground or in the air.
This way I reduce the need to just fly around when shooting. It makes the flight safer and saves battery too! Ideally I just fly up, take the photo, land right away and head off to next location.
First: What on earth does VLOS mean? It means Visual Line Of Sight. It means that your drone always stays in your sight. In many countries drone laws require you to always maintain VLOS. Therefore it´s not legal to fly for example around buildings and other obstacles or simply too far so you lose sight of your equipment.
It´s a really good idea to maintain VLOS when shooting with your drone. You could for example lose the video connection*. Or fly sideways into obstacles just outside your camera view, or fly into objects too narrow to be detected by your obstacle detection sensors. Or you could accidentally climb blindly into an obstacle… You are just better off maintaining VLOS. And usually getting a great photo doesn´t require flying beyond.
*) For example default cable for connecting your phone to DJI Mavic Pro controller is known to cause random issues where you lose the connection between your phone and controller. Then you will lose the video link to your drone´s camera. That has happened to me and I immediately bagan using the defaul iPhone cable and haven´t had that issue since. Good that I was flying VLOS!
Fly with GPS mode only
Great photography drones like those made by DJI are really user-friendly and easy to fly. Beginners can quickly get the hang of it and start concentrating on the photography itself. The basic function that makes it so easy is the GPS hold. When you do nothing, your drone holds position and gives you time to think. Even in substantial wind.
However most drones have the ability to fly withour GPS too. For example my DJI Mavic Pro starts up in so-called ATTI mode. Then as it aquires GPS signal, it activates the GPS mode. ATTI mode means that the drone will not hold position and will drift whereever the wind is blowing. So you actually have to steer it constantly. So what I do is I never take off without GPS mode being activated.
However a random bug can cause GPS mode to deactivate in-flight. So it´s a good idea to be able to fly the drone with manually too. And maintain VLOS since it´s pretty much impossible to control a drone you can´t even see.
Always update the home point
It´s not uncommon to hear about someone´s drone just disappearing into the horizon never to be seen again. Why does that actually happen? One common reason is that user has forgotten to update the home-point when starting up. My DJI Mavic Pro drone records it´s location by GPS when starting up. You´ll get a notification on your DJI Go app when the home point is updated. It happens when the drone aquires the GPS signal.
Sometimes the GPS doesn´t connect immediately or some other error causes the home point to not update in your system consisting of your drone, controller and the app in your phone. For example once I started up my drone and for few minutes it showed home point at a location 100 kilomters away, where I had been using my drone last time. If I had taken off and hit Return Home-button for some reason, my drone would have headed directly towards that location 100 km away!
So always make sure your home point is updated and set to the location where you take off. You might need to hit RTH due to random error or your drone might lose connection to the controller (that you´re holding) which causes it to automatically RTH. Make sure your expensive flying camera heads your way in that case and not over the ocean.
Don´t push the limits of your battery
Proper camera drones still have only about 15-20 min of battery life. If you get carried away by the miracle of unmanned flight it´s easy to quickly spend your 15 minutes of battery. Luckily proper camera drones won´t fall out of the sky when they start running out of battery. DJI drones give a loud low battery warning (you can set the limit, but I suggest no lower than 20 % ) and finally, when the battery is at 10 % charge, the drone will land right on the spot.
Make sure you head home and land before your battery hits 10%! It´s not fun to watch your drone descend into the sea or to a busy highway without anything you can do about it.
Beware of the wind
Wind can be deadly to your drone. It´s not uncommon for DJI drones to display a strong wind warning when you fly. Usually the drone can handle the wind and hold postion even if it´s blowing. But there´s a catch! Holding position in a strong wind drains the battery bit faster. And flying headwind obviously uses more battery too. Therefore you might quickly find yourself in a situation where your drone can´t make it back anymore before battery hits 10 % and it starts landing automatically.
So plan your flight according to location and weather and be aware of your battery life especially if your flying longer distances in windy weather.
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