Drone message boards, DJI specifically, are abuzz of late due to a rash of random crashes being reported by DJI Spark owners. The folks at the Verge did a great job making the point that no consumer electronics are released without a few bad apples. At any rate, if you're wanting to continue your quest in capturing awesome drone photography and video, you must face the fact that a crash is going to happen. In addition to some precautions to keep in mind, I'd like to share useful steps to take after a drone crash.
Before launching your drone for flight, ensure that your propellers are secure and check the drone body for any chips, cracks, or loose screws. Be sure to check the landing gear, too.
If your drone runs in conjunction with a proprietary app, such as the DJI Go or Autel Robotics Starlink, make sure there are no firmware updates that need to run. Ideally, your app will want to update to the latest firmware within seconds of launching the app.
SEE: Quick glossary: Drones (Tech Pro Research)
After you've confirmed that your firmware is up to date, calibrate your compass through the app interface. This will ensure more accurate tracking data of your flights. While you're at it, enable flight logging if possible. For some, this is enabled by default. Finally, make sure you have ample battery power and that your battery is at a healthy temperature. Flying with a battery that's too cold or too hot is dangerous. Check your drone manual for the recommended battery temperature.
When you crash your drone
Notice I said "when" you crash your drone and not "if." When owning a drone, the reality is there will be a crash. Maybe more than one if you're Ant Pruitt. Sometimes it's your fault; sometimes it's due to conditions beyond your control. At any rate, a crash of your beloved drone will happen. So what should you do when it does?
First off, try to retrieve the drone. If you're following FAA regulations, you'll know roughly where the drone went down based on line of sight. If your drone uses one of those previously mentioned proprietary apps, use the map and compass to try to approximate where your drone crashed. In my last crash, this was super helpful, as my drone landed in a densely wooded area. My line of sight approximation wasn't helpful, but the map was spot on.
Upon retrieving your drone, inspect it for damage. In some scenarios, there won't be any external or internal damage. At the most, a broken propeller is the outcome. Take note of the damage you can see and have it as a reference in case you need to contact your drone manufacturer.
If the battery is still installed in your drone, remove it. Take a look to make sure there's no serious physical damage such as a dent or swelling. If the battery just has a few scuff marks on it, it is usually okay. Consult with your drone manufacturer if you're unsure about it. If you notice the battery is severely damaged or beginning to swell, do not try to use the battery in your drone. Contact the drone manufacturer.
SEE: Drones: Learn Aerial Photography and Videography Basics (TechRepublic Academy)
If you don't notice any exterior damage with your drone beyond a broken propeller, let's consider some testing. Remove all propellers, install a different battery if possible, power up your drone, and attempt a typical flight sequence. Without the propellers installed, the drone will not fly (of course). This allows you to go through the standard boot sequence on your drone, which does internal checks for firmware, sensors, and camera/gimbal behavior. After it's booted, you can simulate flying the drone to make sure the motors are functioning properly.
Once comfortable with your propeller-less drone testing, give it a test flight in a safe environment with the propellers on. Just keep the drone at a low altitude. Don't go out trying to push the limits on your test flight. Verify that you still have excellent control from your remote transmitter and a functioning GPS (if your drone has one). If testing passes for you, carry on with flying. If this testing fails, there may be an internal problem with your drone, something that was damaged during the crash. Definitely reach out to your drone manufacturer in this scenario. The manufacturer may be able to assist with troubleshooting and or offer reasonable repairs.
I experienced an internal issue with my drone on my very first crash. The quad flew without any problems, but I couldn't get a GPS lock. The crash was due to my carelessness, and the manufacturer told me it would handle the repairs for a fee. Since I knew I was going to have to pay a fee, I opened up my drone shell to look at the circuit board. I only opened it because I'm comfortable looking at electronics' internals. I do not recommend this action for just anyone. No warranty was voided opening the drone shell in my instance.
After getting the shell opened, I noticed all my jumpers were securely connected. This gave me more peace of mind knowing I wouldn't waste money on repairs because something else was clearly wrong with the hardware and not something as simple as reconnecting a jumper. After the professional assessment, it was found that the circuit board was cracked. This is why I couldn't get a GPS lock during flight. And yes, I paid for the repairs and I was back flying in no time.
SEE: DJI takes on homegrown drone hackers in arms race (ZDNet)
In some instances, you may be subject to low-cost or free warranty repair services via your manufacturer. When you reach out to them, mention all the details of the flight that you can remember. Be sure to share the post-crash notes you kept when you retrieved your drone. This data may be helpful in determining whether the device had a system failure that's covered under warranty.
In my last crash, my drone just fell out of the sky. I recall watching it and the app monitor as the aircraft began to lose altitude. I was able to pull up my flight logs and share this with the manufacturer. The details within that log showed that I was attempting to gain altitude, but the drone was unresponsive and crashed. This caused damage to my gimbal. My drone was repaired for free under the warranty.
If your aircraft is out of the warranty period, you may be able to find a local certified drone repair shop. Just do a quick search online for your area.
Be as careful as you can when flying your drone for the safety of the public as well as the safety of the drone. Fly safe and in accordance to FAA regulations. Don't assume you'll never crash your drone. It's not a matter of IF you'll crash your drone—it's a matter of WHEN will you crash your drone.
- Robots, drones, and the rise of the operations engineer (Tech Pro Research)
- Facebook drone could one day provide global internet access (CBS News)
- DJI's Spark is all the camera drone most people will ever need (CNET)
- Google makes it easier for businesses to fly fleets of drones with new flight management tool from Project Wing (TechRepublic)
Have you crashed your drone?
Share your experiences and recommendations with fellow TechRepublic members.
Ant Pruitt is an IT Support Professional with a passion for showing the non-geek how great technology can be. He writes for a variety of tech publications and hosts his own podcast. Ant is also an avid photographer and weight lifter.