When Drones Attack

For my 37th birthday my wife, her parents, my parents, my sister and her husband all chipped in and got me a drone.  A DJI Phantom 3 Advanced to be specific.


Full disclosure though, I know very little about drones nor how to fly them.  I tend to avoid reading directions, preferring the I will figure it out on my own approach.  At best, I might check out a YouTube video but end up fast forwarding it to just get the gist before trying it on my own.

After a fairly successful maiden flight around Jessie’s parents’ property (the drone forces you into beginner mode where it won’t go fast, high or far).  I chased around Jessie and her niece, and only hit a few errant plants, I felt ready to take the training wheel off and really put it through its paces.

Incident 1:  Mid-February we finally returned to Ojigwan, still where we left it and mostly in the same condition at the Catamaran Boatyard in Key Largo, FL (review of that experience to follow shortly).  As we had so much difficulty getting in the channel I figured it was a good time to get the drone up and take a peek at the channel from above.  As I wasn’t sure the management team would be keen to have me flying it around, I waited until most of the staff had left for the day.  I took off in front of our boat and flew it low along the road to the haul out well.  My plan was to keep it over land but get it high enough I would have a good view of the channel to help on our eventual trip back out.  Enroute a couple of guys doing fiberglass work on a boat in a tent came out to head home.  We were all a bit surprised.  Immediately I was worried I was in trouble, but they were friendly and asked about the drone.  Focused I am not a good pilot yet, but distracted…. really bad.  They asked about how high it could go…legally it can only go to 400 ft. (According to the FAA), but the drone itself is capable of hitting 500 ft.  In an effort to impress, I speedily climbed in altitude.  Apparently, I exceeded the 400-ft. ceiling and the drone lost connection to the remote.  At this point a mild panic set in, but I did not want to appear flustered in front of my new fans.  As it turned out, the drone has a safety feature called return to home.  It designates a GPS point when it takes off and if it loses connection then it just returns to this spot.  As I had not read the instruction manual, I was not aware of this feature.  All I knew is I lost control and the thing took off the other way (toward powerlines) at some point I realized what was happening and I took off running down the gravel drive toward Ojigwan and where I launched it.  Luckily it was evening so there wasn’t much traffic, but unfortunately the ‘home’ point was right in the middle of the main entrance to the boatyard on the road.  The drone landed effortlessly right where it started and a minute or two later I arrived just in time to grab it before someone hit it.  Lesson learned, make sure home is in fact where the heart is.

Waiting until after all the lookey Lous had left for the day I returned to the waters edge and had a successful flight over the water.  Though successful it really only bolstered my confidence to an unreasonable level.

See the video here.

Incident 2:  Drawing first blood!

The next day we got the boat back in the water and headed out the channel at highish tide.  Bumping a little, but making it out the channel and back to Rodriguez Key to anchor.  Based on things breaking and a calm weather forecast we decided to stay another day.  That evening I gave the drone another session.  But this time I upped the stakes considerably.  I would be launching it from our boat in the water and doing so with an 8-12 knot headwind.  As a sailor, I am a little ashamed to admit I didn’t really factor this in to my preflight safety brief, I also didn’t do a preflight safety brief so that may be part of the problem.  Having realized that if I lost connection the drone would return to home, but the boat may no longer be in that exact position I was pretty nervous.  Also, boats have a lot of lines and rigging and sails, and all those things present quite a hazard when flying.  But, nevertheless I was determined.

When launching the drone, there is an automatic take off function.  You hit a button on the screen and it takes off and hovers at around 4 feet off the ground, or boat or whatever.  I did this and it did that.  The problem was the wind gusted and as it hovered it was blown into me and as the tiny doom device came at me I may have panicked…just a little, and hit the wrong control.  As Jessie watched paralyzed the drone attacked me, its blades furiously swatting at me.  Its unrelenting persistence was admirable.  As it drew blood in at least 7 places, I had to both try to avoid it’s whirring slicing death blades and try to capture it before it fell into the water.  It was like trying to pull the wings off a wasp as stings you.  I honestly have no idea how I succeeded, but I managed to grab it after it minced my right arm.  Sadly, I had not yet started filming so all you are left with is a few shots of the bloody aftermath.

Not accepting failure, I resolved to try it again, but this time as soon as it took off I told it to climb in altitude and fly away from me.  As it climbed and hovered awaiting instructions a safe distance away, it now occurred to me I had really only succeeded in placing my very new and very expensive toy in a very precarious position.  I would still have to land it safely in the wind on a boat in the water that is moving around.  After some nervous flying around the boat looking at the island and the harbor I accepted the inevitable and began the return approach.  I knew one of a few things would happen next.  See below flow diagram.


Somehow, perhaps as some sort of cosmic exercise in evening the score of late, I was able to hover the drone just off the deck and grab it safety.  Luckily, I managed to keep the camera rolling for this ambitious maneuver.

I learned a lot.  Mostly that I can do things, but that I mostly shouldn’t do them.  But hey, if you want the shot you gotta roll the dice sometimes.  I also realized how glad I was that I didn’t opt for the carbon fiber blades.  The bandage came off today and the physical wounds seem to be healing nicely, my ego is still a little bruised, but in the long run that is probably for the better.

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