The Surviving Drone Crash

This is one of the experiences that was vivid when it first happened, but fell to the wayside soon after to the point that I almost forgot it happened. I took this video in Oregon while driving north during my move from San Francisco to Alaska. I stopped in a few places along the way to see some friends, shoot and just space the trip out a bit, considering it was a 50-hour drive. Plus, there are a lot of beautiful spots to see on the way, so it made sense to make the journey as fruitful as possible.

Well, this was pretty early in the trip so if this kind of thing was going to happen, of course it was going to happen then. My friend and I had stopped to shoot Elowah Falls & Wachlella Falls, and I decided to send my drone up to capture some photos and videos.

I would never have imagined crashing my drone multiple times into a tree and then watching it save itself before hitting the ground. I didn’t even know that was a possible outcome.

As all drone pilots who have hundreds of hours in the air will tell you, I’ve lost/crashed drones before. For example, I personally lost one due to signal interference and had one shot down (yes, with a gun). That last one is a story for another time. At any rate, as any drone pilot who flies frequently knows, you will lose one or a few. Or more. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. The chance of losing a drone grows with the more time you spend in the sky, the amount risky situations you choose to fly in, and the types of shots you aim to get. The best shots often require the most high-risk flight paths (high risk to your drone, not the environment), so you can see why so many pilots have misadventures with their UAVs.

The situation you see in the above video went down like this: At this time, I had not flown in a couple of weeks, so I was a little out of practice and it took me a second to get my bearings back. It’s a lot like many other skills: if you don’t practice frequently you’ll get rusty and need to warm back up. I was standing in the middle of the scene, so when I aimed to fly towards the falls, I had to first back up a bit to get enough room to compose my shot. Thanks to me still getting used to flying and getting warmed up, I lost my sense of orientation, which is why you see the drone turn right before hitting tree. That’s the moment when I realized I was trying to go forward but instead went backwards.

Needless to say, I hit the tree.

When it hit the tree, I kind of put my hands down and let go of the control sticks, knowing all too well what was about to happen. I’d seen this before. My drone was going down.

But then suddenly… it wasn’t. After a moment I saw it fly off the tree, still fully powered and all four rotors spinning. Surprised, I quickly tried grabbing the controller to save it, but I was still disoriented and flew it right back into the tree (this is where you see it clip branches the second time, fall a bit, then another small crash which sent it tumbling down about 15 more feet).

That’s when I really gave up. It was one thing to have a miraculous save, but after crashing it immediately after the first save, I had no hopes it was going to make it.

I definitely had crashed the drone this time.

Or did I? Somehow, in a way it should not have been able to, it caught itself just before hitting the ground and started flying, totally free of the tree’s branches. I finally had my directions straightened and was able to properly regain control. After a few deep breaths, I was back where I felt comfortable and the drone was working just fine, miraculously.

It shouldn’t have happened. It certainly should not have happened two straight times. But it did, and boy am I grateful for a little luck on my side once in a while.

Editor’s note: I licensed stock video that included drone sounds, as the DJI drones do not capture audio. I added those sounds to the above clip to add a sense of what it was like to be there when it happened.

Category: Aerial, Video
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