That Time My Drone Ran Away

Soooooo, in case I haven’t mentioned it yet: I got a drone!

You guys, I never ever thought I’d be a drone owner. I’m typically one of the ones who roll their eyes whenever they hear the buzzing sound overhead. I hate that feeling of intrusion and can’t stand having my peace disturbed.

Plus, obnoxiousness aside, I honestly just didn’t think I’d have much use for a drone and didn’t see myself enjoying flying one.

So then, what the heck happened?

matala beach crete
Matala Beach in Crete.

Why I Decided To Buy A Drone

Well, it wasn’t quite an impulse purchase so much as a sudden decision and then some very thorough research before pulling the trigger on a shiny new Mavic Air.

With my big EuroTrip coming up and all of the epic landscapes I was about to be exploring in France and Greece, I thought I might regret not having a drone to capture them. Aerial shots of quaint villages and NatGeo-caliber beaches… I mean, those would make some killer photos, right?

Then I thought of how much use I could get out of flying the drone over Sydney’s and Australia’s beaches. I’ve photographed so many of them to death already from the ground; a drone would allow me to capture them from another perspective. And by that I mostly was envisioning flying it directly over the ocean pools.

track lost drone
This is how I look when I fly my drone.

So I swiftly decided that I was going to buy a drone, then I spent ages agonizing over which one to get and where to buy it, and finally I procured my Mavic Air about a month before my EuroTrip was to commence. I instantly named him Droney, because 1). Loves a cutesy nickname, and 2). Sometimes my nicknames are completely unoriginal (see also: calling my old roommate’s cat Kitty and having it stick).

A month isn’t a ton of time in which to learn how to use a drone, I admit. And it was actually even less than that because it took me awhile to work up the nerve to fly it for the first time. Plus I was having to navigate Sydney’s flight restrictions and wind forecasts and there were a few foiled attempts at flying (e.g. one time I went to fly it at one of the small coves on Sydney Harbour, only to realize drones are banned over the entire harbour, d’oh!).

All that to say, I was (and still am) a big ol’ scaredy cat when it comes to flying my drone, and I haven’t flown it as much as I could/should have partly because of this. It’s so bizarre, I am not someone who scares easily, gets nervous about things, or is prone to anxiety, but for some reason my heart’s pounding and I’m sweating profusely from takeoff to landing every time I fly the drone. I really think I just need to practice more and get a few dozen more flights under my belt so that I can gain some confidence, learn more about the drone’s functionalities, and dismantle this irrational fear of flying.

crete beach drone

I managed 6 flights before departing for my trip. I know how to get the drone up in the air, move it around, take a handful of shots, and land it via the “return to home” function – aka a very elementary use of the drone, but really all that I needed for my upcoming travels.

By the time this “incident” occurred, I had completed another 8 drone flights on my trip, which were far from breezy: I’d gotten yelled at for flying it over a tiny village and fortress in Provence, dealt with “high wind” alerts in the Camargue and had to cut the flight short and land the drone ASAP, and stealthily flown it in a no-fly zone in Meteora.

Flight #15 would be a liiiiiiiiiittle bit more nerve wracking.

best beach crete
View from the headland where I launched the drone.

I Lost My Drone

Here’s something I didn’t know before traveling to Greece: Crete is VERY windy.

During my first week on the island, literally every single time I’d wanted to take my drone out it was too windy to do so safely. There was one time, at Balos Lagoon, where it was only sporadically windy and I’d seen someone else fly their drone just before I was about to set mine off. But in the end I just didn’t feel comfortable flying with those random gusts.

It was the same story at beach after beach on Crete. I figured, if I’m having difficulties standing still in the wind, surely Droney’s gonna get bitchslapped and perhaps even injured. So I kept playing the granny card and the drone remained safely stowed in its case.

On my last day in Crete, I found myself in Matala on the south coast, where surprisingly it wasn’t too windy. I spent the afternoon lazing on the beach, then later on I hiked over the headland to nearby Red Beach. The view of the coast from just above the beach was STUNNING – you could see several headlands receding into the distance. I just knew I had to get the drone up to capture it from over the water.

I spent a stupid amount of time deliberating over whether or not to do it, mostly because I didn’t want to disturb anyone else who came up to enjoy this viewpoint. Also, Red Beach is sort of unofficially known as a nude beach, and I wasn’t sure if it’d be a creepster move to have a camera over the nudists (even though you wouldn’t be able to see anything with the camera so high up).

Finally I was like, Lindsay stop being such a granny and DO IT.

crete beach
As captured by Droney.

It was a quick flight: all I wanted was to fly Droney down from the headland over the beach and slightly out over the water for a few shots, nothing too crazy or far out.

I noticed that it was windy closer to the sea (where I was was sheltered from it), but I never got any high wind warning while flying and Droney didn’t look too distressed so I carried on with the flight.

Once the battery got low, I set the drone to return to home (i.e. me) as I normally do. Actually the last few times I’ve flown, I’ve been manually landing – but since the battery only had a few minutes of flying left I figured it would be safer/faster to automatically land. Windy conditions drain the battery faster, so I didn’t want to take any chances.

What happened next can only be described as a freak occurrence. Instead of flying back to me, Droney started flying at high speed in the complete opposite direction, up the coast. It was basically my worst paranoia-fueled nightmare coming to life. I watched in horror as the controller kept beeping and flashing low battery alerts, and the distance between me and the drone crept close to 1km.

There wouldn’t be enough time to cancel the return to home function and manually land it back with me before the battery died, so I made sure to steer the drone back over land and frantically took screenshots of Droney’s last view before he went dark.

Oh shit.

lost drone lost drone
Look at that, Droney ran away to be with his goaty friend!

From what I could tell, Droney had landed a few headlands up from where I was. I had no idea where exactly, or whether there was any kind of trail to follow, but in my typical “whatever happens, I can handle it” fashion, I started hiking. Mind you, I was alone, it was about an hour before sunset, and I had a limited supply of water, so this was somewhat of a foolish mission. But I was a frantic drone-mama! I didn’t stop to think, I just went off on a mission.

So um, there was no trail past Red Beach. You could tell that hippies, hikers, and goats had traversed the headlands in some parts, but it clearly wasn’t meant for walking. There was much rock scrambling and sliding down gravel (really glad I’d worn my hiking boots!). I’d go around one headland and compare what I was seeing to what Droney saw on those last screenshots and though all the headlands looked about the same, the rocks just off the coast looked slightly different so I knew I wasn’t there yet.

lost drone

After awhile, I reopened the DJI app on my phone to see if there was any evidence I’d overlooked, or perhaps a help menu that could tell me how to track a lost drone. It was then that I realized that Droney’s location was still mapped – I could see both his dot and my dot via GPS!

With renewed conviction, I charged forward to the next headland and descended upon Droney’s last known location. I paced back and forth, running my gaze all around the area to see if I could spot my little baby aircraft. His dot seemed to be in the middle of some bushes, but I swear I got all up in them and didn’t see anything.

I emerged from the bush cluster on the other side and gave one last look around. I remember telling myself that I’d done everything I could possibly do to find Droney and even though losing $1000 would hurt, it would be ok.

And then I spotted it!

track drone
No damage to the drone! A miracle!

There may have been tears. There may have been profuse thank yous uttered to a higher power.

I still can’t believe I found my needle in a haystack! I mean, I can totally believe that my reckless optimism led me on this insane mission, but I feel like the odds of it actually succeeding were so low that it might have been stupid to even try.

But that’s the thing – if I hadn’t tried to find my runaway drone, I know I would have regretted it.

You don’t always know how things are going to turn out at the start. If you need that certainty, then you’ll never bother taking any sort of risk.

When I decide I want something, I set my internal compass to success and I just GO for it (see: moving to Australia, becoming a digital nomad/freelancer, getting residency in Australia). I don’t let myself think of the alternative, and I rise to the occasion in ways I couldn’t have foreseen at the start.

crete sunset
Sunset as I was walking back from the rescue mission.

 

I can’t help but think that this freak incident was a reminder for me to keep going after my dreams and desires, no matter how foolish they may seem, no matter how foggy the road ahead appears.

Thank you, Droney, for the lil’ life lesson 😉 Now, if you could go back to behaving so that Mama doesn’t get any more gray hairs, it would be muuuuuch appreciated.

 

PS – I suspect this runaway incident may have had to do with the drone not being properly calibrated (I did calibrate before the flight as I always do, but I don’t think I’ve been doing it correctly based on this YouTube tutorial I just watched). Lots to learn for this newbie drone pilot!

Lindsay Buckley is the photographer and travel blogger behind Frugal Frolicker. She's a New Yorker currently based in Sydney, Australia, documenting outdoor travel experiences Down Under and beyond. Follow along with Lindsay's travels on Facebook and Instagram.

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