Fear of Flying
2016 – The Last Word on Drone Flyaways!
It’s the term that won’t go away and seems to instill fear into many budding Pilots – the dreaded “Flyaway”. As with many fears, there is a grain of truth to the concerns-but statistically the fear may be unfounded.
The term is used mostly in relation to GPS assisted quadcopters – those selling in large quantities such as the DJI Phantoms, Blades, Yuneecs, etc.
It’s all about the odds – and about reliability. Let’s take a short look at some common fears and whether they are grounded in facts:
Fear of flying on commercial airlines in the developed world – this fear is unfounded as the odds of a crash are about 1 in 4 MILLION – the odds of you being killed are even smaller. On the other hand, there is a 1 in 500 chance of your death being in a car accident. Do you drive? Or ride in a car?
Terrorism – the chances of your being killed or injured by terrorism are very low. You are 300X more likely to die from a workplace accident, 5000X more likely to die from a medical error and 2000X more likely to die at your own hand (suicide).
So how does this relate to ‘flyaways”?
This word, flyaway, has become a catch-all. Perhaps we should use “incidents” as a crash over concrete from 30 feet high can result in complete destruction of your precious bird. A tree, building or the ground may quickly stop your “flyaway”, therefore turning it into a crash. All of these are incidents – incidents where a drone doesn’t do what the operator intended.
Drones DO fly away and have incidents. No one denies that fact. Our concern is those shoppers and buyers who somehow believe that the next new product will be perfect and never crash or fly away. In this post we’ll try to give the basics on measurement of these incidents – and, of course, how to avoid them.
The causes of these incidents break down into three basic types:
1. Operator Error
We ALL make mistakes. Yesterday I crashed my Phantom 3 into a concrete abutment at ground level and flipped it. A bit of dirt may have entered the motors as it threw off an error (motor blockage). I cleaned it up and it flew well. However, if motor failure happens in the next few flights the chances are that I – the pilot – caused it by this crash.
I’m sure many pilots – when claiming their fly aways – forget to tell us or the manufacturer about the mistakes they made in the previous flight! That’s human nature 101.
2. Operator or Equipment unfamiliarity
Many incidents could be prevented or made less serious if the operator is a skilled pilot. Educated operators know how to save their machines and also are more likely to use checklists and do basic inspections and maintainance. Aircraft will also be more reliable in the hands of skilled person than in those who have not taken the time to read and understand the technologies involved.
3. Hardware or Software defects
Engineers make mistakes – mass production actually increases reliability, but we have to remember these are not military-grade $$$ machines. Subtract the cost of the battery, Remote and Camera/Gimbal and you’ll notice the cost of the actual flying machine at about $300…a price which does not buy perfection.
Some incidents may involve one of the above – others all of them.
The brand and model of the drone does matter – and that’s the focus of much of the remainder of this article.
Following are some comments and/or perceptions based on the industry leaders – DJI, Yuneec/Blade and Parrot.
Consider these two statements:
1. A drone pilot spoke at a seminar at CES. He has flown many models of drones for many years – and never had a single incident. Is he lucky? I have never had one myself that wasn’t my fault. Am I lucky? The gentleman who stood at the seminar also has his pilots license and mentioned that he takes the same care with his drones as he does his planes.
2. DJI has more incidents than any other brand – DJI is probably the most reliable consumer quadcopter on the market.
#1 is self-explanatory. There are many drone pilots who have had 100’s of flights without unexplained incidents. Those who are more educated and more careful tend to have better “luck”.
#2 sounds like a trick statement – but it’s not! The DJI Phantom 3 probably has 10X the amount of hours in the air as the other players combined – in the 1K camera/drone segment of the market. Therefore, if it has 5X as many incidents as the rest of the field put together it’s twice as reliable.
Let’s run some numbers as an example. If 500,000 DJI Phantom 3 models have been sold and each of them has flown 30 times that’s 15,000,000 (15 Million) flights. If 1 in every 2,000 flights results in an incident, that would be 75,000 crashes and flyaways, enough to fill the entire internet with sad stories. Yet 1 incident in 2,000 flights would be an acceptable figure (IMHO) for such insidents, especially since – as noted before – many are avoidable. If 10% of these incidents are not avoidable, that takes us to a reliability of 1 in 20,000 flights.
How about other Brands?
I have owned and reviewed Blade (Yuneec, Horizon) products and followed many of the online conversations regarding these. There have been numerous reports of crashes – many resulting from hardware (ESC, Motor) failures. I talked to a drone repair specialist who does post-mortems on crashed quadcopters and he assures me there are shortcomings in the design(s) – as there are in all machines. In other words, the grass is likely not greener on the other side – if you hear of fewer crashes or flyaways, it’s because a LOT fewer units are being sold and flown.
Parrot, the last of the “big three”, has almost countless incidents due to the lack of an standard Remote – these use a wireless connnection from your smartphone or table which is not as reliable as the standard Remote TXs. I can’t speak to the exact numbers – only that I have purchased 3 different Parrot drones over the years and all three had incidents. Online reviews seem to indicate similar experiences.
It’s all about Expectations
If you expect to buy one drone and have it forever – without incident – perhaps you should consider another hobby or change your thinking. These are not like computers and cameras – they fly, and therefore they crash. As with any aircraft, you have to figure on a cost per minute, hour or flight and determine if this is within your budget. You also have to consider whether you are ready to put the time into education and maintainance.
Example: A drone pilot stepping up to their first camera drone might consider the Phantom 3 Standard, which is $499. If said pilot gets 50 flights and then dumps their Phantom in the lake (an incident), they still have the Remote ($50) and the charger ($50) – so they’ve lost $400. Another way to look at it would be that they flew 50 times for a cost of $8 each flight. Would you pay $8 to fly a camera for 15 minutes? I would.
The Latest is most Likely NOT the Greatest
A typical comment I hear is “I’ve been looking at the Phantom 3 but all the flyaways concern me. The Brand X is coming out in a month or two and I’m considering that one to avoid these problems”.
If you’ve read the article this far you probably see the folly in this. The new machines have never had incidents – because they are not flying yet! In virtually 100% of cases, new entrants to the market have been less reliable than the existing machines – which have been made more reliable over time.
The only way to get an accurate take is to look back after thousands are sold and flown in all conditions…and by every type of pilot. For instance, I love flying in the new Boeing 737’s that Southwest has in their fleet. The 737 has been around for decades and the newer models improve on every aspect of the first production runs. It’s probably the most reliable aircraft in history – because more of them have flown more miles and continuous improvement has honed the machine.
Fear of Flying?
This is natural – no one wants to lose their precious quadcopter and/or endanger the public with a flyaway or crash. It’s up to each of us to determine if we can stomach the financial risk and responsibility. As with any pursuit, knowledge and care can greatly mitigate the chances of negative experiences.
Those who seek just a little more insurance can consider the following in addition to taking great care:
1. Purchase a less expensive model – the Phantom 3 Standard at $499 is one good example.
2. Purchase a crash warranty if available – B&H Photo is reportedly selling a SquareTrade warranty for their quadcopters.
3. GPS trackers (trackimo, marco polo) and audio alarms can be installed on your machine – giving you more chance of recovery if and when it gets away from you.