I Destroyed a Drone on My First Flight and Here's What I'd Do Differently

I Destroyed a Drone on My First Flight and Here's What I'd Do Differently

The first time you do anything, you’re bound to do it poorly. The first time I shot football, I thought a 1/200 s shutter speed would be perfectly fine to stop action. The first time I shot portraits, I thought my f/1.6 photos were perfectly sharp (they were not even close). And the first time I flew a drone was a catastrophe worse than both of those experiences.

What you see in the photo above is what’s left of my DJI Mavic Mini drone after its first day of use last week. I figured learning a new skill would be a good use of time in quarantine and finally took the plunge. After successfully taking off in my backyard and moving a few meters forward above an empty parking lot, I took a series of shots of my neighborhood to stitch together into a panoramic photo of the ghost town the shopping plazas had become during this global pandemic. The photo captured what I had been aiming for, albeit the one picture has basically cost me $400.

The only image I produced from my short-lived time with the DJI Mavic Mini. This is a panorama stitched from 14 photos in mid-air.

The only image I produced from my short-lived time with the DJI Mavic Mini. This is a panorama stitched from 14 photos in mid-air.

On the way back down, I watched as the drone hovered pretty close to a tree branch about 60 feet in the air. I stopped and then pushed the joystick in the direction that I thought would be away from the tree. However, in what was clearly a rookie mistake, I forgot that the controls of the drone are reversed when the aircraft is facing away from me versus when it’s facing towards me. Into the tree my Mavic Mini went. I heard the rotors struggle to fight the branch, then give up. Gravity took over, and the Mini’s tiny frame dropped to the ground, along with my hopes and dreams of aerial photography.

It did not even have a half-hour of flight time under its belt. The camera was still broadcasting to the DJI Fly app, and so, I was easily able to find the Mavic Mini’s mangled body in my neighbor’s backyard.

I was devastated. It appears the steep drop onto concrete ripped off a motor arm and destroyed the gimbal and some parts of propellers, though all of the electronic functions of the craft still appeared to work.

I spent the next couple of days in a gloomy fog over my mistake. My son made it a point to tell everyone he spoke to on video chats that his dad was sad about breaking his drone. I’m sure the grandparents had no idea what he was talking about.

I emailed DJI, and while friendly, the customer service rep did not realize their service center was not accepting repairs for now, what with a global pandemic and all. I only realized after I diligently followed his instructions to set up a repair and received a message about a service stoppage due to COVID-19. I checked with all local drone repair shops and was out of luck there, too. YouTube tutorials on self-repair involved a lot of soldering and ripping apart of the body I wouldn't be comfortable with, in case I ended up screwing up the repair and having the drone drop out of the sky and onto another human being.

While it would have been nice if I had the DJI’s Care Refresh plan on the drone for a discounted replacement, it appears that circumstances mean I’m out of luck in any case for a while. (Update: Over the weekend, I got a UPS shipping label from DJI, so it appears that, while slower, repairs are still happening, thankfully) It's a shame, because in my short time with it, I was able to express my creativity in ways I've never been able to before.

The note about COVID-19 that one receives after filling out the repair request on DJI's site. Completely understandable, but it's still sad news.

The note about COVID-19 that one receives after filling out the repair request on DJI's site. Completely understandable, but it's still sad news.

I see now why pilots go through such miraculous lengths to catch their drones as they fall from the sky. Watching hundreds or thousands of dollars turn to scrap in seconds is a real gut-punch.

Lessons Learned

If I had the chance to do the first drone experience, there are a few things I've learned after the fact that might help readers considering a first drone purchase:

  • Consider a drone with some sort of obstacle avoidance. The model up the line from the Mini is the Mavic Air, and that has forward, backward, and downward-facing sensors to avoid hitting things. Of course, the even more expensive Mavic 2 Pro and Zoom have the same. It might not have helped in this case, as this was definitely a side-impact situation, but certainly would in some others. It's probably worth the extra money if it prevents you from having a crash in the first place.
  • Purchase insurance. For $39, I could have purchased Care Refresh from DJI, and a replacement or repair through that program would be significantly less than the (at a minimum) $250 expense I'm looking at to replace this drone.
  • Don't forget the educational discount. I found out after the fact that DJI offers discounts for students and faculty at universities, and that would have brought the higher-priced Mavic Air down to almost what the Mini cost. Always worth a look with any gear you're planning to buy.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Like a kid taking his first steps, I tried to run before I could walk, and I ended up falling flat on my face. I should have watched a few more videos and done some more reading before taking on anything more complicated than a short hover in the backyard. A drone is not a learn-as-you-go tool.

The lesson learned here is one that I have always imparted to my photography students but is still a bit hard to swallow: You will suck the first time you photograph something. It’s why I tell them when they turn in an assignment to make sure it’s at least the second time they’ve photographed said thing.

In my case, I perhaps should have taken a less ambitious flight on my first go-round and practiced a bit more. A poor photograph will bruise the ego, but a busted drone bruises the wallet. This was an expensive mistake.

Do you have an epic drone crash story to share? Do you have any drone safety tips for first-time fliers? Feel free to share in the comments below.

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17 Comments

TY! Sorry for the hassle but good tips.

Ariel Martini's picture

If you are near an obstacle and isn't sure what direction is safe: go up

Wasim Ahmad's picture

This is definitely a tip that would have saved me here.

Kurt Hummel's picture

Definitely need to learn to fly before trying to do video or photography. Best to spend several hours in just a big empty field with nothing to hit and practice maneuvering around.
But your not the first person to crash on their first flight and you definitely won’t be the last to do it so don’t feel bad to long.

Craig Tooms's picture

Put the drone in beginner mode and practice. Also you should go to a football field or soccer field where there is wide open spaces so you can get use to the controls. Did you not practice driving in a parking lot? Same thing.

I feel bad for what happened but thank you for sharing this experience with all of us. I was just having this conversation with a fellow photographer friend last evening...losing a drone on the first day...and this provides some perspective on how to better hedge against this type of loss.

The Mavic Mini is also my first drone and while I haven't been able to fly it alot the few times I did I made it my point to do it in an open field, well I thaught everybody would with their first drone?

Daris Fox's picture

The DJI app also has a flight simulator. Practice with that, you do need to be connected to the drone but it'll hone your instincts and skills on flying. I spent a good few hours and familiarising myself with it's controls and abilities before I actually flew it in anger.

Drones are fun, just be always aware of local laws and flight restrictions pertinent to your country. Especially since there's increased likelihood of medivac helicopters in the current climate or if you're in America getting it shot down by an angry neighbour.

You gotta take it slow. Don’t assume the camera’s systems will save you from operator error. As others have noted, you gotta learn to crawl before you can walk, and walk before your and run. I probably spent a few hours doing nothing but flying in an open field and just familiarizing myself with how the drone handled.

You did not purchase the most expensive Drone to start and that probably is another tip

Sometimes it is easy to disorientate yourself with respect to the drone and even seasoned pros have to double check sometimes.

Whenever I am in this situation and I'm too close to an obstacle I just give the drone a slight nudge to re-orientate myself. From there I can safely move the drone away from danger.

cliff curtis's picture

As others said, up is almost always your best bet when you are unsure. When i teach someone to fly, i take the drone to 150-200ft and hand them the controller. I ask them to avoid up and down in the beginning, unless they are directly over a safe area, then i ask them to only use up and down to land.
One exception to this- as you get more brave you will find yourself flying under obstacles such as trees. Make sure you have plenty of battery power; DJI drones will automatically return to home on a low battery, which means it will try to go straight up first. Bad news if there's a tree overhead..

I flew my DJI 200 times in 100-200 feet from me . And took the Drone up and land at list 200 times manual landing till the battery was at 20 % . So you don’t get a vehicle and hit the freeway on the same day . Common sense places a big part in life and Drones .

Wasim Ahmad's picture

My wife would argue that I'm lacking common sense in both areas!

Mark Stutzel's picture

Thanks for sharing your painful experience as a warning to us. I don't own a drone (yet), but if I take the plunge I will have your experience in the back of my mind!

John Armstrong's picture

Here are some tips. I have about 600 hours of in the air flight time on my DJI drones.

For the most part these are directed towards first time DJI drone owners but they likely can be applied to operators of any drone.

1. Put your drone up at 100 feet before you do ANYTHING if you are new. Get used to the controls up where there is nothing to hit. Then to begin with use Return to Home to land. If you think you are going to take video or photos within the first week of owning the drone... I think that is unrealistic and can be unsafe.

2. Make sure to set your return to home altitude to the right altitude for the flight you are making every time. You don’t want to return to home through a wall or trees or a mountainside.

3. Birds cannot fly straight up. You can... If the are coming for you just go straight up about 10 feet when they get kinda close.

4. Once you have a handle on it... (Make sure you know how to calibrate the compass, and the IMU (calibrate the IMU in a cold garage) then go to a wide open area... and learn to fly in ATTI just in case... There are rare times when the GPS does not work... or will unhook... You need to know how to use ATTI.

5. In the same open area, learn the auto modes... Orbits are very handy.

6. Do not put too much faith in following and obstacle avoidance. DON’T fly inside. And if you do, make sure you have the GPS off, the return to home set to hover (loss of signal) and the bottom sensors on... Especially... don’t fly inside at night (when it is dark) or in an area where there is not a pattern with contrast on the floor. The camera on the bottom of the drone positions the drone and if it cannot see any contrast it will not hold. (In a large concrete floored convention hall for example)

7. Learn in Mode 2... DON’T remap your sticks. ALL drones are Mode 2. It is just time to tackle it and learn.

8. Once you are comfortable with this stuff... Litchi offers some really cool intelligent flight modes that Go4 does not have.

9. Do not learn to use start up or shut down by moving the sticks down and to the center. You do not want that muscle memory in your fingers. Trust me.

10. Buy a yellow vest. Use it when you fly. It is an invisibility cloak. Everyone will ignore you.

11. When you get experienced enough to where you want to try a landing yourself rather than using auto land… This should take about a week of flying a couple of times a day… Fly it down to where you’re relatively close and then turn the drone backwards to where the camera is not facing towards you but directly away from you. This will simplify the controls. Right will be right left will be left.

12. Even if you are not going to get your part 107 license, presuming that you are in the US. Watching Tony Northrup with Northrup Photography’s Part 107 test prep video would be very smart for you.

13. Obey FAA rules. DO NOT FLY OVER PEOPLE, Keep the drone in your line of sight, do not fly more than 400 feet Above Ground Level, do not fly at night, do not fly nearby airports (See the next point)

14. In the US download the B4UFly app from the FAA. Learn to check for sensitive areas before you fly. If you are a hobbyist you now need to know how to use the LAANC system to fly your drone in restricted airspace. I suggest using skyward.io for LAANC services. There is NOT an LAANC app. You need to get your unlocks in place at home on your computer before you go to fly.

15. Make sure you register your drone with the FAA. Understand that local law enforcement are empowered to ask to see this registration number on your drone as per FAA Regulations AFTER your flight ends. This will help.
Getting Started. The Mavic Mini does NOT need to be registered in the USA, however the ONLY thing this will do to help... is save you $5 on your registration. You are still subject to ALL the same rules everyone else flying drones is.

It seems like a lot. It is not. This is a serious thing and some thought needs to go into it but this is a super fun hobby. You are going to love it.

(I teach the New Pilot Experience course pretty regularly at my local camera store... I fly a P4P and an Inspire 2 with the X7 camera. Used to have a Matrice M600 Pro...) www.drewarmstrong.com

Wasim Ahmad's picture

This is AMAZING advice, thank you for sharing!