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

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.

DJI Spark The DJI Spark in flight. Credit: DJI

Final verdict

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.