"Accidents don't 'happen'. They're caused."
Recently, a handful of DJI Spark owners have publicly reported that their drones have fallen from the skies mid-flight. The claim is that the drones suddenly and without warning shut off mid-flight causing them to, quite literally, fall out of the sky.
As my father used to say, "Accidents don't 'happen'. They're caused." So who or what is causing these crashes? Is it poor engineering showing up in a handful of of the units produced by the world's largest drone manufacturer, or is it user error? While DJI claims to be investigating each reported incident on a case-by-case basis, many of the reports posted in forums either point directly to—or leave a wide berth—for user error.
Example 1: Child crashes drone through window & tries to fly again
Video is no longer available: youtu.be/2r9s1L15Wo4
Yup. You read that correctly. A child recorded and posted a video where he tried to fly his DJI Spark through an open window. Of course, he crashed into the window, and the drone fell onto the balcony and ejected the battery. In the next video he posted, he carefully examined the drone and all the pieces and did careful, controlled flight tests, right? Nope. Instead, because he "hadn't tested it since," this guy took the drone out to his balcony and flew it out over the road—with people below—to "test it and hope it doesn't plummet into the ground." I'll save you the suspense. It fell out of the sky and onto the road below.
It's amazing how fast a drone "falls out of the sky" when its battery falls out.
But what's important to note in the video is that when you see the drone fall, you also see the battery falling alongside it, which would indicate that in his previous unsuccessful attempt to fly through a window, he damaged one of the clips such that the battery could not remain securely fastened. It's amazing how fast a drone "falls out of the sky" when its battery falls out.
Verdict: User error
Remedy: Do a detailed physical inspection following any crash/hard landing and only test in safe, controlled settings to minimize the chances of collateral damage should your unit not be functioning properly.
Example 2: Fly-away into obstacle while using active track
In another complaint, the user claimed to have done proper pre-flight calibrations, yet lost control of his drone while having it follow him using the "active track" feature (while he rode a bicycle and held the remote control in one hand). The user claims that at one point during flight, the drone lost its ability to continue tracking him and started to "fly backward away from me [at] a really high speed" (shown in the video above). Eventually the Spark hit something, crashed, and he was able to find and recover it. He reported that, after the incident, the drone seemed to be behaving normally.
Upon review of the flight log, another forum member with a "Captain" rating took a look at the user's flight log and thought it looked like a flyaway, suggesting it was a software issue. According to the captain, all of the reports seemed to indicate good GPS connection through the entire flight, and that the drone remained in active track the entire time.
Conspicuous by its absence was any mention of battery levels and where (in relation to where he lost control) he did his initial calibration. Now, I can't say for sure by watching a video, but one potential cause was that the Spark recognized that it needed a certain amount of battery life in order to safely return to it's home point, went into "return to home mode" and flew toward what it believed was its takeoff location. Another possibility (though not probable) is that the user inadvertently pressed the return to home button and didn't realize it because he wasn't looking at the control.
Verdict: Unclear/possible user error
Remedy: Understand how the drone behaves/reacts in certain scenarios. Know where your drone's "home point" is and realize that if you trigger a "Return to Home" scenario after you've moved away from the drone's takeoff location that it will fly toward the take off location, not to you.
People in the DJI Spark's target demographic likely don't have the experience, practice, or discipline to properly check their equipment and operate safely.
Example 3: Guy's daughters' Spark shut off mid-flight
In the third example, we're without the benefit of a video. The poster says that his daughters had been flying the drone successfully and without incident on two occasions since they received it. On approximately the seventh flight (determined by counting the described flights in the post), the drone inexplicably fell from the sky. According to the poster, the drone "flipped and dropped. Power was off and the GO app had a warning about landing or something."
An experienced pilot, the man ascertains that it was "100% Not Pilot Error" because "loss of power cannot be initiated by the pilot mid-flight without using an RC and forcing the motors to stop." The part about not being able to shut the power off is true. What's also true is that:
A: If the battery was not properly charged and whoever was flying ignored the low battery warning, they would get a warning "about landing or something" and, if that warning wasn't heeded, the battery would, in fact, shut off.
B: if whoever loaded the battery didn't do a pre-flight check to ensure that all of the clips were perfectly fastened and that there was no play in the battery, the battery could have improperly installed, causing it to lose its connection during flight and crash the drone.
Verdict: Unclear/probable user error
Remedy: Ensure the battery has sufficient charge by checking the battery levels on the battery (Looking at the LEDs and at the levels reported by the GO app). Also check that the battery is properly and securely seated in the drone (by installing it, looking at the latches to make sure they're securely fastened, and trying to wiggle the battery while installed to check for any play). Do this before every flight.
It is, of course, possible that there are a handful of defective drones leaving the DJI Plant with bugs, and mechanical failures obviously occur in all kinds of products. However, the idea that the largest and most experienced drone manufacturer in the world is producing faulty products now—after four years of producing consistently and overall properly functioning products—seems improbable, especially since those faults would have to evade detection all the way through delivery to the customer.
More likely is what's being exemplified by the videos and descriptions here: people in the DJI Spark's target demographic (kids and people who want a fun toy drone to play with) don't have the experience, practice, or discipline to properly check their equipment and operate safely. The probability in these situations is, overwhelmingly, user error. Whether those errors are caused by blatant disregard/lack of respect for the equipment, or ignorance due to inexperience varies case-by-case.
In response, DJI released the following statement to Quartz on July 15th:
"DJI is aware of a small number of reports involving Spark drones that have lost power mid-flight. Flight safety and product reliability are top priorities. Our engineers are thoroughly reviewing each customer case and working to address this matter urgently.
DJI products are tested for thousands of hours, and the overwhelming number of customers enjoy using our products with minimal disruption.
We are looking to implement additional safeguards with a firmware update which will be issued soon. When prompted on the DJI GO 4 App, we recommend all customers to connect to the internet and update their aircraft’s firmware to ensure a safe flight when flying their Spark."
As no recall has been issued, and a firmware upgrade being developed, it's safe to assume that these reports will prove to represent only a tiny fraction of user experiences.
*AMENDMENT* Contrary to my assertion in the article, example #2 is probably not a case of the drone returning to home because as seen in the video, the drone is flying backwards and it would not fly backwards in return to home. However, looking at the way in which the operator is carelessly holding the remote and not looking at where his hands & fingers are, it is quite possible he inadvertently gave the drone a command that initiated the "fly away".
This article was based on and maintains one central assumption: "It's more likely that people who are not used to or trained in using this kind of technology don't take the time to learn or fully understand how to operate and maintain it. Therefore, it's far more likely that users are causing these problems than the equipment. The examples in this article illustrate behavior ranging from outright-reckless to complacent and when you apply that kind of approach to sophisticated technology, bad things happen.
July 26, 2017 at 3:48PM
Thats just what I commented, you beat me by few seconds. :)
July 26, 2017 at 3:51PM
Example 3, does not make sense a return home , since during a RH it first go up to the default height and only them it returns to home. However, from the video it goes directly backwards.
July 26, 2017 at 3:49PM, Edited July 26, 3:49PM
Not necessarily. If the battery is critically low, it just lands. But, it is warned against to fly the drone at critically low battery levels because of the propensity for the battery to shut off. That's well known and is why most experienced operators leave a cushion and land with reserves. Batteries are not perfect. You can get a reading that says it has more life than it does. It is your job as an operator to know that's a possibility and take steps to prevent the drone from crashing. The thing that people don't seem to understand is that EVEN IF the drone is faulty, it is up to the person operating to take every possible precaution to "mitigate risk" and that means not blindly trusting the equipment.
July 26, 2017 at 6:08PM
Yes, it was a typo error, I meant to say Example: 2
July 27, 2017 at 1:19AM
Not trying to be a jerk but your evidence and arguments don't support your thesis. You give three anecdotal pieces of evidence and only 1 points to probable pilot error. Your argument that DJI is unlikely to have a defect because of their years in business is flawed. You just need to look at Samsung's latest recall to see that no company is immune to defects, especially when it comes to new product launches. This feels like a DJI propaganda piece to me.
July 26, 2017 at 4:47PM, Edited July 26, 4:47PM
#1 is clear and obvious pilot error. #2 is probable pilot error (just look at how he's holding the remote) #3 His kids were operating it and had flown 7 times... Maybe #3 is more "didn't properly install & check the battery before flying" than it is "poor manipulation of the drone in flight" but with something like a battery being lose that's "pilot/human" error because it happened during flight.
It's the operator's job to check and ensure the drone is free of damage and fit to fly before taking off. Simply taking hold of the battery and manipulating it to make sure there was no play can help determine that. The father, a self-proclaimed "experienced pilot" made no mention of having done a pre-flight check nor of the fact that he taught his girls to perform one and making sure that they did. So...who knows?
The point of this whole piece is that far more-often-than-not, claims of poor manufacturing are dubious and are found to be human error. We saw the same thing with the Phantoms "fly aways" and the Mavics having purported battery problems (found to be caused by improper installations by the operators).
Why does this matter? Because headlines that come out saying "drones are falling out of the sky" create fear and uncertainty around a nascent and promising industry that will do far more good than harm as long as inflammatory headlines and dangerous operations don't spawn over-regulation.
Samsung's latest recall was a systemic problem acknowledged by the company as such. Not a handful of anecdotal instances in dubious circumstances.
July 26, 2017 at 6:03PM, Edited July 26, 6:03PM
I like the format of the article but I’m fairly disappointed by the use of a clickbait title.
July 26, 2017 at 5:04PM, Edited July 26, 5:04PM
So how long have you guys been doing sponsored "content" with DJI? Yeah, you post some examples of cherry picked, stupid users, but there are plenty of other people who have complained about this issue on YouTube and have supporting, anecdotal evidence.
July 26, 2017 at 6:45PM
John Nunes, my old friend! Well, first, this article is specifically about the DJI Spark. I am talking about those drones only. I know of one person personally whose Spark fell out of the sky while he did nothing. (He passed the FAA Professional Drone Operator Test with flying colors). Others on YT had the same issue. Sure, there are idiots out there, but the Spark has some problems, IMHO.
July 27, 2017 at 6:39AM
What a ridiculous clickbait article and title
July 28, 2017 at 5:25AM
I lost a DJI Phantom 4 in a typhoon, ambitious client request, so I got it replaced. Anyway, I couldn't fly it back, but the drone was still on for a good 5-10 mins after the battery reached 0%, which shows that DJI has put some effort into battery autonomy to avoid these sort of user errors. This makes me think that it's very unlikely for a DJI drone to just randomly fall from the sky, not impossible as technology is not perfect and any particular drone could have a particular glitch. I am pretty sure that in at least 90% of cases, if a drone drops it's the user's fault. Luckily, in my case it fell in the middle of the sea, so no one could have been harmed. Leroy: always in my heart <3
August 1, 2017 at 5:25AM, Edited August 1, 5:25AM