The Death of a Drone: Our Tragic Drone Crash Landing in Alaska

Two for the Road Travel Adventure Blog Death of a Drone

Hey guys! Dusty here, with a tragic tale from the waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage.

One of the coolest weapons we have in our photographic arsenal out on the road is without a doubt our drone. Drones have really changed the landscape when it comes to videography and photography, and have given little guys like us the ability to get some incredible aerial footage that was not long ago the exclusive realm of those with the money and connections and gear that allowed them to shoot from a rented helicopter. We got our first drone, a DJI Phantom, a couple of years ago and have been avid drone pilots ever since. From Antarctica to Africa to the Galapagos and beyond, we’ve managed to capture some incredible footage with our drone that I never dreamed we’d be able to get on our limited budget. Truly awesome stuff.

Generally speaking we’ve [knock on wood] had very, very few issues flying our drone(s), and we pride ourselves on doing it responsibly. We don’t fly where we’re not supposed to, we don’t fly recklessly and we don’t fly at all if we suspect there’s the slightest hint of a problem, mechanically or otherwise. But as we learned during our incredible adventure in Alaska with Un-Cruise and Adventure Life, being cautious and conservative doesn’t always mean you’re immune from unexpected disaster. Check it out..

Our Drone Disaster in Alaska

It was toward the end of our cruise in Alaska’s Inside Passage and the weather was absolutely picture-perfect. Sunny skies and barely a breath of wind. Our ship, the Safari Endeavour, was at anchor and the crew was prepping the kayaks on the dry dock at the back of the ship, getting everything ready for the morning’s excursion. I thought it’d be the perfect time to get some aerial footage of both the ship and the kayakers, so Nik and I grabbed the drone from our cabin and headed up to the top deck.

After getting the OK from our ship’s captain, Jenna, we cleared an area on the deck for liftoff, got the drone powered up and made sure to calibrate the compass (which is incredibly important and something we’re sure to do before every flight). And the drone responded perfectly. The lights indicated that everything was calibrated correctly and the drone was locked on to a healthy number of GPS satellite signals.

Safari Endeavour Captain Jenna Stevens trying out our FPV system.
Safari Endeavour Captain Jenna Stevens smiles as she views live aerial footage through our FPV system.

One of the groovy things about the drone is that it has a “go home” feature, which is supposed to use GPS to pinpoint the exact location from where the drone lifts off.  The idea is that in the event something bad were to happen during a flight – say, the batteries in the controller die suddenly and you lose communication with the drone – the drone is supposed to use the “go-home” GPS feature to remember where it lifted off and automatically return. Thus saving the drone, saving the day, and saving your ass. That’s what’s supposed to happen.

When the time came for launch a few minutes later, the weather was still absolutely gorgeous and some of our fellow passengers were already in the kayaks and floating around the ship. So we got the drone up and, as we typically do, we let it hover above the ship for a little bit just to make sure it was behaving properly, which it appeared to be. So I put on my FPV goggles (which allow me to see what the camera on the drone sees) and I slowly flew it out and got it in position fifty yards or so off the stern (back) of the ship.

Now despite my undeniable enthusiasm for shooting aerial video, I’m actually pretty conservative when it comes to flying. I like to map out a flight path in advance in my mind, get the shots I think we need, and land again as quickly as possible. The way I see it: the longer that thing’s in the air, the more that can go wrong. Especially when you’re flying anywhere near other people.

The drone had been up maybe a minute and a half to two minutes, and everything seemed to be working well, when I noticed that a group of kayakers had paddled around in front of the ship and was headed toward the shore. I thought it would make a beautiful shot, so I began to position the drone around to the front of the ship so I could follow along above them. And that’s when it happened.

Dusty positions the drone off the side of the Safari Endeavour.
Dusty positions the drone off the side of the Safari Endeavour.

I noticed while looking at the video signal through the goggles that the picture began to wobble from side to side. And within a matter of seconds – before I could even react really – the picture went from horizontal to vertical – which meant the drone had gone from horizontal to vertical – and I saw it quickly losing altitude and heading toward the water. And then, static.

Shit. Shit! Not good.

Nik had been keeping tabs on the drone visually while I was monitoring the picture through the goggles and I could hear her yelling something frantically. I ripped the goggles off my face and tried to orient myself.

“What happened? What happened?” she asked in a panic.

“I think we’re in the drink,” I said. Which was a lie. I knew we were in the drink.

Our hearts were racing as we both rushed over to the railing to see if we could spot where it went in, hoping that, by some miracle, the drone would be floating peacefully atop the glassy waters and would thus be relatively easy to retrieve. Which it did float, for ten seconds or so about a hundred yards off the port bow, before suddenly dropping like a rock into the depths and the icy darkness. The group of kayakers I was following from above had actually witnessed the dramatic crash-landing and they paddled quickly over to the point of impact to try and grab the drone before it sank, but to no avail.

In a heartbeat. In the blink of an eye. In one heart-stopping moment, the drone was gone forever. And along with it, everything that was attached to it: the GoPro, the camera housing, the FPV video transmitter, all of it gone. All told, about $1100 worth of gear. Gone. Poof! Just like that.

My immediate reaction was one of shock and disappointment and confusion and anger, of course. But also enormous relief. At least, I kept repeating, at least it didn’t fall on somebody. A thought, and a possibility, that still makes me shiver when I think about it.

So what the heck happened?

Dusty and one of the last shots of this DJI Phantom drone.
Dusty and one of the last shots of this DJI Phantom drone.

There will never be a way to tell for sure exactly why the drone went bonkers and went for a swim, and there are several possibilities. But my best guess (and I think it’s a valid one) is that the drone simply got confused. When we lifted off, we were flying around the back of the ship and everything seemed fine. But when I flew the drone around to the front of the ship, I believe I made a critical error. The ship’s bridge is at the front of the ship obviously, along with all of the ship’s radar and communications equipment. And when I flew the drone around to the front, I allowed all of that radar/communications equipment to get between me and the drone, which might have possibly interfered with the signal between the drone and my controller. So again, I think the little guy just got confused and just fell out of the sky.

But… if the drone has a “go home” feature, shouldn’t it have just returned to where it lifted off? Yep. You’d think so. I thought so. But without knowing exactly what the problem was, it’s dang-near impossible to figure out why it didn’t kick in.

The good news, aside from the fact that nobody got hurt, is that the crash happened toward the end of our cruise (rather than the beginning). Plus, I’ve learned over the years to back up all of the footage we shoot religiously, which I do… sometimes two or three times a day. So we didn’t actually lose any footage at all, except for what the camera was recording on that final flight when it went for a dive. So we still managed to get (and save) lots of great aerial footage on the trip. A couple of my favorite shots in fact are in this week’s video from Glacier Bay, specifically beginning at the 1:05 mark.

The really bad news came from our insurance company once we got back home. As insurance companies do, they found a crafty way to deny our claim on all that gear. After going back and forth with them for several weeks, they ultimately said that because we were on a ship – and not on an actual “premise”- they determined there was nothing they could/would do for us. A fine little punch in the gut. Like a good neighbor, huh? Hardly.

So bottom line, we had to pay out of pocket for a new drone, a new GoPro and all the new accessories/attachments. And now we are indeed flying again, albeit even more cautiously than ever before. Crazy what an incident like that does to your confidence. But we still love to do it, and we especially love what those aerial shots do for the production value of our videos.

What about you? Do you fly a drone? And if so, what do you think might have happened here? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Cheers guys! Have fun flying, and safe and happy travels…

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7 Comments

  1. Oh, that just sucks! So sorry to hear that. Before reaching the end of your post, I was thinking the same thing…that the ship’s radar (and/or other communications equipment) interfered somehow. You know how they say that you should not use the GoPro wi-fi feature? I think the reason behind that is similar to what happened with the ship’s signals. I have been flying for over a year and have had just one crash myself…it was quite minor (and user error), but it caused a motor to go out. Or so I thought, it ended up being the controller board. I thought I could easily fix this, but unfortunately through a comedy of errors, I messed one thing up after another and dropped over $400 in parts before I blew the thing up. After being out so much money, I decided to just buy the same model but used. I’ve not had any issues thus far, however I’m chomping at the bit to get the new Phantom 3 pro. Some great new features! It would be nice to get the Inspire, but not sure I can justify spending that kind of dough.

    • Thanks Mike! And yeah, those new models look wicked cool. Especially the Inspire! But definitely a little pricey. We’re still using a Phantom 2 and it works great for what we need it to do… but hope to upgrade too at some point when we can.

  2. Pattie Meyer

    So sorry you had the crash! Also sorry about the insurance! That sucks!!!!!

  3. I was just at Dawes Glacier for the week of the 21st getting aerial shots for an upcoming IMAX movie. I got amazing shots over the glacier, during caving events, and up close from my camp on the mountains next to it. No issues flying whatsoever for the entire week. The reason? I NEVER fly with GPS and “return to home” feature. Your first mistake was to fly FPV. You should never fly that way; it’s not safe. You should fly with a line-of-sight view to the aircraft at all times and use a second camera operator with the video downlink to take the shots. Second, you need to learn to fly without the reliance on GPS…in manual mode. You cannot rely on the compass or the stabilization system to always work without issue. It doesn’t ever happen and you are guaranteed to eventually crash if you depend on it. Your biggest mistake was flying around the boats radar and communication electronics.
    Every time we saw the big cruise ships come into the bay we stopped flying. I had to wait until all those “little boats” left the area and the ship turned around and left.
    Look for the movie in theaters next fall. Hope you enjoy the aerials. They’re awesome!!!
    Cheers.

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