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.
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.
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.
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.