How Not to Lose Your Drone

So you just threw down over $1,000 for DJI's latest Phantom and you want to make sure you take good care of your investment. Here's some pro tips on how to minimize the risk of losing your drone and ensure many successful flights over many years.

1. Learn to Fly Manual First

This one may seem obvious, but you drastically reduce your chances of loss by flying in manual mode. The automated functions have a lot of great uses, but before you start teaching your drone to follow you around, make sure you know how to override the automated functions and take control should the need arise. Put in the time to develop the muscle memory to fly the drone manually without putting too much thought into it. As a bonus, you'll be able to focus more on taking great pictures rather than flying.

2. Know Your Drone

Along the same lines as the previous point, understand how the drone works and what safeguards are available to prevent losing the drone. For example, DJI has a nice beginner mode that limits the speed and distance - probably a good idea for a first timer. Return to Home (RTH) is another great feature to have the drone automatically fly back to its takeoff point (See point below on RTH). Also be aware of the sensor data. DJI provides a handy map that shows not only the location, but also the heading. This comes in handy when you lose orientation of the drone.

3. Fly Line-of-Sight

In the US, according to the FAA, hobbyist must keep their drone within sight at all times. The FAA is mostly concerned with operators interfering with manned aircraft or other hazards, but it turns out this is a good rule for the safety of your own craft as well. The rule leaves a lot of judgement up to the operator as to when he or she cannot "see" the drone anymore ("that little speck out there is my drone!"), but I recommend erring on the side of caution and being able to clearly identify the drone. A good benchmark is to ask a bystander if they can spot your drone. The farther away you fly, the higher the risk you will lose your drone if something goes south.

4. Avoid No-Fly-Zones

Many drones, prominently from DJI, include geo fencing that locks the drone out from operating in certain restricted areas. Different drones handle the geofencing in different ways, but the bottom line is that the behavior can be somewhat unpredictable as the drone manufacturer is primarily concerned with keeping the drone out of restricted areas (such as the White House) and will prioritize that over returning your drone safely. Some people have reported that the drone will simply land where it is at if it crosses a NFZ, which could be conveniently over a body of water. This is especially problematic if the drone is in an automated mode, such as returning to home. You may have been carefully flying around the NFZ when the drone decides it is low on battery and the shortest route back happens to cross this barrier. That is why whenever I fly I stay far away from NFZs.

5. Calibrate the Compass

This step is often missed by pilots. It is important to calibrate the compass preferably before every flight, but even more so when in a new location and the calibration is more likely to be offset. An incorrect reading from a compass could cause odd behavior, including the drone flying in the wrong direction in an attempt to RTH, especially if the GPS signal is weak. Calibrating the compass takes only a minute. Here is a guide to calibrating a Phantom 4, for example:

6. Don't Forget the Wind

Often overlooked, the wind can be a powerful force against drones. A drone can only travel as fast as its rated speed plus/minus the wind speed in the direction of travel. This means that while the drone may enjoy a nice speed boost zooming away from you, that boost will turn into resistance trying to come back. If the wind speed is high enough, it could easily outdo the power of the drone. In short, if the wind speed is greater than the max rated speed of the drone, you will not have control over the flight. My rule is not to fly if the wind speed is greater than HALF of the rated speed, to leave plenty of margin for control and chaning conditions. There are plenty of good weather sites.

7. Avoid Return-to-Home

The RTH button is a comforting feature to use when all else fails - but it should be used only when all else fails. The technology is steadily improving, but I've read too many stores of RTH causing lost drones. Most of those times were in rather mundane condition when the pilot could have easily manually landed the craft.

8. Tracking Device?

A last option I should mention is buying a GPS tracker device for your drone that can help locate the drone long after it has run out of battery. I don't recommend these devices for a few reasons. First, just because you know where the drone has landed doesn't mean that you can safely retrieve it. If it has fallen into a dangerous crevice or on top of a building, chances are that you won't be getting it anyway. Second, if you can't find your drone, it probably wasn't a graceful landing, so expect lot of damage. When adding the cost of the tracker, anything under a few thousand quickly isn't worth the hassle.