As a public safety rescue pilot with the Wake Forest Fire Department, I’m here to tell you there is no substitute for preparing for something unexpected to happen while you are in the air. Let me share some of my scares with you.
Every day I fly a very expensive DJI Matrice 210 with thermal and zoom cameras on it. The $28,000 price tag makes me a vigilant pilot and helps explain why I practice emergency situations on a regular basis. On a recent flight, everything worked fine for the first 15 minutes in the air, and I had not experienced any issues with the aircraft in previous flights. There was no reason to expect any problem. Suddenly, the drone transmitted a compass failure message and began to fly away, uncommanded, at about 12 mph.
Another scare arrived during a recent public safety demonstration workshop with 125 people watching. My drone and another both disconnected from their controllers at the same time while flying in an escaped inmate search area. This was also over water, and next to a prison no-fly zone.
The key to a successful recovery is to have mentally prepared for it by rehearsing your response to an emergency many times before it happens. You can make many key decisions in advance, and execute those planned actions without hesitation, without having to think your way through the problem as it unfolds.
Drone pilots need to use the same approach to prepare for an in-flight emergency that airplane pilots are taught.
I had a scary flight last year in my Cessna 182 on a dog rescue mission, with the call sign “Compassion 431.” My oil pressure dropped to zero at 10,000 feet, above clouds, an event that manned aviators will understand is a very serious situation, since engines are prone to seizure without oil, and without an engine, you don’t get nearly as many choices about where to land.
What to Do in an In-Flight Drone Emergency
The first thing to do is take a deep breath and try as hard as you can to not panic. It’s easy to say but difficult to do. Trust me, I know from experience. Uncertainty and panic are the building blocks of a tragic conclusion.
Let’s look at what to do in case you have a drone flyaway emergency.
Primary Lesson: You need to know the three rules of handing aviation issues: aviate, navigate, communicate.
Aviate – Your priority is to maintain control of your drone. Look at your aircraft and use flight inputs to not to allow your drone to go further away from you or descend if there is the danger of crashing or bodily harm. If your fly-away happens at night, you may not be able to see the drone and will have to rely on the controller telemetry, if you have that like on the DJI Cendence controller, to gain control.
Keep control of your aircraft, even if that just means holding position while you mentally regroup. If you can’t maintain control then send it to crash where it will have less chance of hurting someone or damaging property.
Navigate – You have two options to return the done to the landing zone. You can fly it back manually, or you use your Return to Home (RTH) function on the controller if you have trust and confidence in initiating the RTH process. I have complete faith in my RTH process and will use that as my first choice to return the aircraft safely.
Communicate – If you are flying with an observer or a friend, let them know what happened as soon as possible so they can assist you with the emergency. At the very least they can keep an eye on the aircraft while you regroup. Communicating allows you to call in support to assist you with the emergency. Communication is a force multiplier.
In the case of my fly-away emergency, I mentioned above, using the aviate and navigate solutions I just shared with you I was able to stop the drone from flying further away and slowly fly it manually back for a safe landing.
But the demo flight controller disconnect in front of all those people I had to resort to what I’m about to share with you. Both unexpected flight situations had happy and successful endings.
Return to Home Needs to Be Your Best Friend
If you have never tested the RTH feature of your drone, you should do it as soon as possible. When I’m assisting a new public safety drone pilot, I’ll even have them practice initiating the RTH function and also test turning off the controller while the drone is in flight. Trust me; they don’t want to turn off the controller. It is almost beyond scary the first time you switch it off in flight. But you must have 100 percent confidence in how your RTH operates. This is something you should absolutely practice.
Practicing RTH procedures begins with first making sure you know how you configured the RTH function of your drone for that flight. The first item to check on each flight in a new area is the RTH height set in your flight software. I set my return altitude 100 feet higher the highest obstacle in the area I’m flying.
Also keep in mind your return to home height is set to the height above your takeoff point and it has no relationship to the height above ground at any point in flight. If you launch from a lower ground level and are flying around hills, you could fly into the side of a hill while the drone is still displaying it is a couple of hundred feet high. I have a couple of different apps on my smartphone which show me the topography if I’m flying in a new area. One app that is my primary topographic app is Topo Maps US, it’s free. You will notice most topographic apps are geared for the hiking crowd. I just turn off all those features.
Next, you need to check what the configuration you have set when you experience a loss of signal. Make sure it is set to return to takeoff point and not just land. Keep in mind the position set as the home point can be the location where you switched the drone on and not the spot where you lifted off the ground. A tree and I learned this one the hard way in my early days.
If you have a configuration option for the amount of time the aircraft will pause before returning after the loss of signal, memorize that. You will need to know to wait at least that length of time before you start panicking. Trust me, in the event of a loss of signal, 15 seconds will feel like an eternity.
Here Are Some Quick Tips and Things to Know Before Your Next Fly Away Emergency
- Make sure your name and telephone number are on the aircraft along with your FAA registration number if you are a Part 107 pilot. If you lose your drone in flight and it is found, hopefully, you’ll get a call and recover it. About 50 percent of the pilots I know who have had in-flight emergencies and lost their aircraft, received calls and got their drones back.
Bonus: I actually have a Trackimo on the Matrice 210 I fly but I recently saw a Marco Polo solution that is worth considering as well. The dedicated pilots at the Broad River Fire Department have one attached to their Matrice 210.
- Remember that UP is almost always your friend if you lose control near obstacles or are in danger of injuring someone. To use the up emergency exit, give the drone full climb to 390 feet and hold that position while you develop a plan of action. The only time up is not your friend is if you are flying under some obstacle like trees.
If the flight ends in an accident which causes serious injury to any person, a loss of consciousness, or damage to property of more than $500 the FAA requires you to file a Part 107 Accident Report. To submit an accident report, go to https://faadronezone.faa.gov
But if you have an unexpected flight event and are concerned the FAA may punish you, you can get immunity from the suspension of your UAS pilot certification by submitting a confidential, voluntary, and non-punitive report through the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System. You must provide your statement within ten days of the event. Click here to file a report.
I learned about the NASA immunity from the kind people at AOPA Pilot Protection Services, I highly recommend you consider enrolling in PPS if you are flying a drone. The ability to call an aviation attorney for advice after things go wrong is invaluable. AOPA PPS was my first call after my in-flight emergency from the mid-air oil pressure loss. By calling PPS, I knew what to expect from the FAA representative who was on the way to interview me about the emergency. Everything ended just fine.
Reader Questions and Follow-Up
Dave said, “Since you emphasize understanding and setting up the RTH function, which is great. You may also want to emphasize that using RTH should be when everything else is not working out. If the problem is with the GPS, for example, and you hit RTH or turn off the TX, your drone is gone when perhaps all you had to do was overcome wind drift in ATTI mode which can feel like a flyaway but is not.”
Dave is absolutely correct. Switching to a different flight mode can give you additional control.
The various available flight modes on the 210 I fly are described by DJI by saying:
I coincidently published a flight debrief where I had a flyaway event. You can read that post and see the video here.
No two emergency situations are ever the same. I wish they were. Dave’s suggestion is perfect advice when you have a flyaway where it is drifting away from you and you have time to try multiple solutions. In the case of the flyaway I show in this video the Matrice 210 was flying away at up to 20+ MPH and I only had seconds to make decisions about dealing with the emergency, before I lost sight of the aircraft. Switching flight modes just was not a solution that was available to me in that particular emergency.
In A mode the aircraft uses the barometer to maintain altitude but not position so with the high winds it may have accelerated the fly away since the winds would now play an even more important factor.
I have flown in A mode and use it when flying inside, as shown in this post.
Dave is absolutely correct in saying flight mdoe changes are yet another way to regain control and should be something you keep in the back of your mind when you have the time and opportunity to use it.