Yes, I know it’s supposed to be “fly safely.” This post is about flying drones safely and what to do when things go awry. It is a story that happened yesterday for me and might possibly happen tomorrow for you.
It is a cautionary tale that ended well.
Accidents, like the one I am about to describe are rarely about just one thing that goes wrong. Most often they are a compounding of circumstances that build until the crash happens. Analysis of airline crashes rarely blame one event that lead to a catastrophic failure. Rather a series of them add up to disaster. This happens in automobile accidents. A distracted driver, a slick road, someone cuts in front with not enough room, tires slide and well, you get the idea. Take any of the events out of the list and the accident doesn’t happen.
Phantom 2 & the Hero 4
Like most of us who fly with GoPro Hero 3 cameras, the thought of shooting 4K video at 30 frames a second is compelling. It means that zooming in during editing doesn’t compromise the image. I prepped my drone and Hero 4 camera for a flight and discovered that there was no video streaming to the monitor from the camera. I started the camera rolling anyway and lifted the quadcopter off. Almost immediately, the drone, by itself, rose to about sixty feet and started to slowly descend. The controls allowed me to steer the copter but not control its altitude. Once it was safely landed, I packed it up and went back to the studio.
Back to the Hero 3
Outside my studio on New Year’s Eve, the Phantom 2 / Hero 3 acquired six GPS satellites. The camera and monitor were connected. I lifted the copter up to about seven feet and let it hover. It was perfectly stable. I walked up to it and pressed the record button on the GoPro. I rotated the drone away from me, pushed the left stick forward to fly it high enough to clear the power lines while moving the right stick forward to make the drone fly toward them at a fairly fast rate. I have done this many times quite successfully.
Was I distracted? Was I tired? Was I thinking about the incompatibility with the Hero 4? Was I showing off for myself? (There was no one in the complex on New Year’s Eve so I certainly wasn’t doing it for an audience.) Did a combo of all of them cause me to let go of the altitude stick before the drone was high enough to clear the wires?
The drone sailed away gaining altitude to fly over the power lines when, suddenly it did a loop flying upside down then yawing and pitching off to the left. I knew it had hit a power line but it was still in the air. I fought to bring it back under control. I got it stabilized and flew it back to where I was standing. I gripped the landing gear and pulled the left stick back to the right power down the four motors. The camera and gimbal were gone.
Some how, some way, the gimbal and camera had snagged the power line and were torn from their mounting on the Phantom 2 even though they were protected by the landing gear as shown in the photo above. Sure enough. There they were, dangling from the cable like a pair of shoes knotted together tossed over a wire. Here’s a one minute video of that flight. About 34 seconds in you’ll hear the drone motors wind down as I recover it.
Taking responsibility for what happens on a shoot, when flying a drone or driving a car is super important. It’s human nature to work to find a way to minimize personal responsibility when things go badly. I certainly didn’t want to admit that I had flown into the lines that I have scrupulously avoided for the year I’ve been flying around the industrial park housing my studio. I also knew better than to get anywhere near the high voltage lines to try to recover the camera. So I owned up. I called the power company; explaining that “I’ll bet you’ve never had a call about a customer flying a drone into power lines before” and owning up to my mistake. A few hours later I got a call from a lineman named Jeff. He had safely retrieved the gimbal and the Hero 3 from their perch like birds on a wire.
The rest of the story
The GoPro and the gimbal have been reunited with the Phantom 2. They both work fine in spite of their ordeal (and mine). I called Jeff back and told him the good news. He mentioned that he really wants a good photo of his daughter. I told him it would be a pleasure to make it for them.Kevin is a commercial photographer from Atlanta. He works for fashion, architectural, manufacturing and corporate clients. When he’s not shooting, he contributes to Photoshop User magazine & writes for Photofocus.com.