The Parable of the Lost Drone

Parable of the Lost DroneSkip to the bottom if you want the lessons learned and the pictures and videos from the drone. But if you want the whole story, here it is…

For my most recent birthday, I decided to splurge and get a toy that would be fun for me and the kids. Usually, I tell Heather not to get me anything for me birthday, and so usually she ends up getting me some clothes or some snacks for work or some practical need. This year, though, for some reason I felt like we should branch out and get something impractical yet fun, and so I decided to get myself a drone that I could fly around the yard with the kids.

As I researched the options, I thought I better get an inexpensive one because I have heard of many people crashing, destroying, or losing their drones. I didn’t want to make a huge investment in case it turned out to be nice very fun and one that I wouldn’t be devastated if it got destroyed by the kids or me crashing it. I decided on one on Amazon with good reviews that was relatively inexpensive and it was delivered just before my birthday.

As anticipated the kids and I both enjoyed the drone. Truman and Abe both tried it but ultimately it stressed them out too much to fly it, so one short flight was enough for them. The other four kids (Hannah, Max, Eliza, and Scotty) all flew it several times over the first week. Then disaster happened after only a week of ownership of the drone and only a dozen or so flights.

It was the weekend after my birthday and Eliza asked if she could fly the drone. She and I went into the back yard and set it up. She flew it for a few minutes, and then I decided to give it a fly. I decided to go a little higher than I had previously taken it. I got it up to about 50 or 75 feet, it’s hard to say how high exactly, and then a mighty wind came by of maybe 5 miles per hour. Now, I should back up a little and tell you that as we had been flying the drone around the yard for the last week, I had been unimpressed with the ability of the drone to navigate with the slightest breeze in the air. The drone had been blown multiple times into trees and fences in our yard.

On this day, the sky was clear and it didn’t seem windy. I was also feeling more confident in my abilities to steer the drone and so that’s why I dared to take it higher than before. The drone manual said it had a range of 200 to 300 ft, so I thought I might venture up to 100 feet or so. But long before I got to that height, a near hurricane force of around 5 miles per hour swept the drone in a southwest direction, out of our yard and across the street.

I first tried to steer it back to our yard, but the drone was unresponsive and continued its southwest trajectory. The drone was higher than all the trees in the neighborhood, so it had a clear path to go wherever the wind was taking it. Fearing it would fly out of sight, I ran out the back gate of our yard and chased it down the street, all along continuing to try and steer it back to my position. But it was all for naught. After I crossed the street, I followed it about half way down the block. The drone was over some trees in the back yards of these neighbors but soon it was out of sight. The drone disappeared as it cut sideways, crossing into another section of the neighborhood and I never saw it again. It likely crashed into some trees or a house; hopefully it didn’t crash into a person or a pet, though it’s pretty harmless, lightweight, and you can stop the propellers with your hand without much discomfort.

In the first day or two with the drone, I came up with a rule of thumb that I kept telling the kids that if you see yourself losing control of the drone, just hit the emergency land button right away. However, when I realized the drone had been blown far out of our yard and the steering wasn’t bringing it back in my direction, I didn’t follow my own advice. The problem was that at that moment I realized I had lost control, the drown was over a street and I feared it would be hit or hit a car if it landed right then. In retrospect, I should have hit the emergency land button and taken my chances with the car, though it was not being responsive to the remote control, so it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway.

Instead of hitting the emergency land button, I thought up a new strategy and tried to make the drone go higher. At a higher altitude, I thought, it would go above the trees and I would still be able to steer it back to me. Of course, none of this worked either. The drone was unresponsive to the lateral directional input at that point, so the altitudinal controls, up or down, was probably also ineffective and any altitude gains were likely from the wind.

I then ran back to my house, put on some shoes (I had been out in the yard in my flip flops) and started driving around the neighborhood looking for the drone around the area where it was heading when it went out of sight. I was still hopeful at this point that I could retrieve the drone, but soon realized that finding it could be harder than finding a needle in a haystack. I drove around for ten or fifteen minutes, looking in trees and yards and everywhere I could think of, but realizing the futility of it, I came home and broke the bad news to my wife and kids.

We all shed a tear or two (okay, not really), but I did pull out my phone to take a final look at the pictures and videos we had taken with the drone. It was then that I realized, the drone emitted a WiFi signal, which is how it transmitted the photos and videos back to my phone. If my phone got near the drone, that WiFi signal would show up on the list of networks on my phone and I would know the drone is near. Again, I went back to the streets where I thought the drone might be, and drove up and down the road, but once again, my plan was frustrated. The phone didn’t pick up the WiFI signal from the drone. The battery life of the drone was pretty short, so even if the power stayed on through the crash, the wimpy battery had probably died out by then. Or perhaps the drone had powered off when it crashed, or perhaps it was blown miles away. Who knows.

So that’s the sad tale of the lost drone. I call it a parable because I hope that someday, I’ll see past losing my favorite new toy and see the bright side of the story and realize what great life lessons I learned from the incident. For now, I can at least say a few things I would do differently, if I had it to do over again. And if you can think of any other great morals to the story, do let me know in the comments below. 🙂

  • 1. Print a sticky label with my name and contact information on put it on the drone. That way, if it escapes again, maybe a good person will find it and return it.
  • 2. The moment the drone seems out of control, land it immediately. Even if that means landing it in the street or in the neighbor’s yard. The chances of recovering it are greater that way than if it is blown a mile away and lands who-knows-where.
  • 3. Don’t fly the drone high enough to be blown away until I am more experienced and skilled at controlling it. And don’t be arrogant about your skill level. After only one week and a dozen flights, I was no pro and obviously flew the drone too high for my skill level and for the quality of the drone. And if you do decide to fly it high, go to a park or somewhere with LOTS of open space.
  • 4. Get a better-quality drone. For it’s price, this was a good drone, but I realize now that it had major limitations and weaknesses. I don’t have anything to compare it with because it’s the only drone I have flown, but from the beginning I was shocked at how easily this drone was blown off course by the slightest wind. There are higher quality drones on the market that are much more wind resistant.
  • 5. Along those same lines, next time, I would get a drone with better controls and more features, such as a self- navigating return home feature. Again, the nice drones have a feature that, with the touch of a button, will use GPS to bring the drone back to you. From day one with me and the kids using it, we knew we needed that feature.
  • 6. Get a drone that takes higher resolution pictures and videos. This drone’s camera was 1080p and it had no microphone, so the video has no sound. And as you can see in the pictures and videos attached to this post, the imagery is pretty low quality compared to what we are all used to on the most basic of smart phones.


1 reply
  1. Steve Sokol
    Steve Sokol says:

    Sorry about your loss. A lesson I’ve learned over and over is to stick to the plan. I see it all the time, people have great plans/procedures in place. But when things get difficult/chaotic they abandon their well-thought-out plans and improvise. I’m all for improvisation, but in a critical moment, the best course is to stick to the plan.

    I’m basically echoing your lesson to hit the emergency button in an emergency instead of making a new plan on the spot.

    Reply

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