The surprising things that can go wrong with a drone!

Flying and owning a drone is not without its risks. While owning a drone, I have had to troubleshoot a wide range of problems, from calibration errors, broken propellers, battery issues to learning how to get better as a pilot. Each problem I tackle makes me a better pilot and ensures that I can fly my drone safely and securely.

Many things can go wrong with a drone, including calibration and software issues, accidents resulting in broken propellers, frames, arms, and battery issues. Discontinuation of a drone can also make it very hard to repair parts or find replacement batteries should things go wrong.

I have been lucky that I have never had a significantly serious accident with my drone. Over the last three years, I have had to replace batteries, replace propellers, clean up the drone after flying through a swarm of bees and learn how to fly in challenging circumstances.

In this article, we will go over all of the common things that go wrong with a drone so that you can be prepared if they happen to you.

Pilot error

Since owning my drone (DJI Mavic air), I have been very happy with the robustness of the software and how easy the drone is to fly. Nonetheless, there are still times when the drone seems to have a mind of its own or I cannot get the drone to do what I want it to do.

Many of the near misses have been caused by flying too close to overhanging obstacles and flying in less than ideal conditions.

All of the issues with my drone flight have been caused by my error.

I have either not calibrated the drone correctly, ignored an on-screen warning or taken off in conditions that I know would be challenging for the drone.

Learning how to fly your drone safely by slowly increasing your capability and pushing the limits of your knowledge, you can avoid many of the accidents and incidents many drone pilots face.

Calibration issues

Calibrating your drone is an important step in keeping it flying safely.

Calibration is required to ensure that all sensors provide accurate information to the software responsible for flying your drone. Your drone can become miscalibrated throughout a regular flight due to vibrations, collisions, and heavy landings. Vibrations and bumps can easily throw off the calibration components and hardware settings of the drone.

When you first receive your drone, you will likely be asked or prompted to calibrate certain aspects of the drone when setting up for your first flight. This calibration can include but is not limited to sensors such as:

  • The compass
  • The inertial measurement unit consists of:
  • the thermometer
  • the gyroscope
  • a barometer
  • the accelerometer
  • Geomagnetic calibration

Depending on the drone you have purchased and the advanced software features, for example, auto stabilisation, auto hover, altitude hold, and other flight assistance software, this calibration could be an important component for you to achieve a stable and safe flight.

Always follow the on-screen instructions and ensure that the drone is calibrated to the best of your ability. If you want to know more about why you have to calibrate your drone, check out my other article.

Flyaways

Another issue is that drones can fly away from the pilot without warning. Check out my YouTube video below if you want to know why your drone flies away and these five simple checks you can make.

There are several reasons why your drone may fly away, including:

  • return to home not enabled – return to home is a common feature of many consumer-level drones that set a GPS location for the drone to return to on low battery.
  • Return to home altitude not set – you have to set the home altitude to approximately 60 m or 10 m above the highest obstruction in your area. Some drones are not clever enough to navigate obstacles and may simply struggle to manoeuvre around trees when returning home.
  • Compass interference – magnetic interference can often cause a drone to fly away. The Earth is like a giant magnet, and there are some fancy electronics in many drones that will tell it which way it is pointing relative to the Earth’s magnetic field. If there is a magnetic field that is stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field in the area that the drone is currently flying, it can mistake the direction it is pointing.
  • Flying out of the line of sight – you should always keep your drone in a direct line of sight while flying.

Flyaways are particularly distressing because you cannot be sure of when they will happen. However, if your drone has a GPS location option, you can see where your drone flies and ends up.

Accidents

Accidents are a real part of flying a drone. Drones can be damaged through use (while flying a flight mission), or they can become damaged during storage. Once I was carrying my drone in a bag, and it fell off the arm of the sofa. This accident resulted in damage to the drone battery.

Near misses happen to every pilot at some stage. In some cases, the near misses turn into pretty catastrophic accidents for the drone. Drones are relatively easy to break because the materials are very light to allow for extra flight time.

It is not only the materials that make a drone fragile. The highly leveraged forces acting at the body and the arm can concentrate drone crashes’ energy to small areas.

Even the most minor of heavy landings can result in broken parts, especially in foldable drones, from broken propellers, broken arms, and cracked frames.

Here are common outcomes from minor drone accidents.

Broken propellers

Propellers are to a drone what tyres are to a car. I see them as a replaceable part of earning a drone, and they should be replaced regularly.

Propellers can become broken if they come into contact with any structure, or they may degrade over time.

You should change your drone propeller when they have completed about 300 to 500 flight hours or when you notice any significant change in the noise they make while cutting through the air. Change them if they are shipped, damaged, warped or discoloured.

If you want to know more about when you should change your drones propellers, check out my other article – click here.

When you should change your drone’s propeller

Broken arm

drone arms are very easy to break because they stick out from the drone body. The protruding propeller and motors mean that the drone arm sticks out to ensure that the aerodynamics of the propellers are efficiently lifting the drone.

The protruding propeller and motors mean that the drone’s arms stick out from the drone’s body. This form factor creates a relatively fragile connection between the drone and the frame. Forces from landing get transferred through the arm into the drone body. The connection is put under a lot of strain.

Drone arms are one of the most likely components of the drone to break and the hardest to repair.

If you want to know more about the materials used and how you would fix a broken drone arm, check out my other article – how to fix a broken drone arm – click here to be taken to the article.

How to fix a broken drone arm

Cracked frame or body

The frame is one of the strongest parts of a drone, but it can become damaged due to a heavy landing or accident.

The drone’s frame is typically made of a magnesium alloy that contains approximately 90% magnesium, 9% aluminium, and 1% zinc. Magnesium is a popular choice for drone frames because it is lighter than aluminium. This part is probably the strongest part of the entire drone.

On top of the drone, the frame is an impact-resistant plastic shell that protects the drone’s internal components and electronic parts. This shell is either high impact polystyrene or an acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. The plastic is the easiest component of the drone to break.

Battery issues

The battery technology which is used for drones is lithium polymer composite batteries. These batteries have to be treated with care. The batteries must not be exposed to extremes of heat, be depleted completely, or handled roughly.

ME and my DJI Mavic Air battery

The reason drones use these batteries is that it is the best combination of lightweight and power density – just what something that needs to fly up into the air needs.

100% depletion

Every lithium polymer battery is made up of individual cells – a drone battery has between one and eight. Each of these cells is rated at 3.7 V and are fully charged if they reach 4.2 V. You must never let your battery drop below 3.7 V as you will permanently damage the battery, and it may never charge again. 

To check the batteries’ health and make sure that all of the cells are functioning correctly, head over to the app. In the case of a DJI drone, this is where you need to go.

Open the DJI Go 4 app > click the three dots in the top right-hand corner > and select the battery icon.

This screen will give you all of the information you need about each of the individual battery cells. The green bars for each cell should be close to the same height, indicating healthy cells.

Overheating

Lithium polymer batteries are incredibly sensitive to heat. This problem is a tricky balance because the drone will generate a fair amount of heat, moving electrons from the battery to the motors as quickly as it needs.

Before recharging your drone battery, make sure that it has been fully cooled down to protect the lithium polymer composite inside. Sometimes even the act of recharging your drone battery will increase the heat.

Never leave your drone batteries in a hot place like your car or direct sunlight in a bag.

I have done this a few times, and I noticed that my batteries did not perform well after being left in a hot car.

If you live in a particularly hot climate like I do – Australia – you need to pay particular attention to where you are leaving your drone and its batteries.

Maximum recharge cycles

Drone batteries can be charged up to 500 times. That is approximately 12,500 minutes of flight time per battery.

If you are a power user of your drone, you may need to replace your battery more often than the average person. To get around the lifetime issues of a drone battery, I recommend buying an extra battery or two as soon as you purchase your drone.

Symptoms of needing a new drone battery may be:

  • Shortened flight times – if your flight times are getting shorter and shorter with the same batteries, it could be that your battery needs replacing.
  • Excessive heat while discharging or charging – if you find that your battery is becoming uncomfortably warm during charging or discharging, you should replace it out of a matter of safety.
  • Corroded or damaged metallic connections – if your battery has significant corrosion or discolouration on the metal components, then you should replace the battery as soon as possible.
  • Excessive time charging – if your battery has issues with charging, you should consider buying a new battery.

Also, any strange activities to do with batteries should be investigated and replaced with a new drone battery if in doubt. However, with good maintenance and care, a drone battery will last you for a very long time.

Discontinued drone

Now that I have had my DJI Mavic air for about three years, I have noticed that it is becoming harder to get hold of batteries and propellers. These are the components that people change out most often with their drones, and the manufacturer can make it very difficult if they discontinue a drone.

Hard getting replacement parts

The age of the drone is important to consider when purchasing a secondhand drone. Manufacturers often release a new drone every one or two years which can easily put the older drones at risk of becoming obsolete.

We see this in other technologies such as laptops and iPhones, and drones are no different.

If you have problems getting replacement parts, you should reach out to the manufacturer or look on eBay and other secondhand marketplaces for drone kits and batteries that people want to get rid of.

Camera issues

Many of today’s consumer-level drones come with cameras. Many people buy a drone to capture awesome aerial footage and content for social media and other online platforms.

The camera can also present some issues due to the high number of small motors used to control the camera’s direction and the materials used to dampen vibrations.

Gimbal problems

A gimbal is a device that keeps an object steady in a certain position despite the movement of the device that it is attached to – in this case, it is a drone. This means that as the drone is constantly changing position and is being bumped and knocked by the wind the object attached to the drone will stay steady.

The main function of the gimbal is to cancel any unwanted motion in all three axes of movement.

Due to the high number of small motors in a gimbal, the drone camera is more likely to become stuck in a certain position. Small amounts of dirt and grime can also penetrate the gimbal’s small crevices, which can cause issues.

If your drone does not have a gimbal, it will have small rubber grommets to protect against vibrations caused while flying the drone. These rubber grommets can become perished over time and cause increased vibration and a wavy effect on the footage captured.

Summary

This article has gone over everything you need to know about what can go wrong with a drone.

For the most part, flying a drone is a really fun activity, and very few technical errors occur. Buying your drone from a reputable manufacturer will also increase its reliability and the options for help should anything fail or go wrong.

Part of the joy of flying my drone is overcoming problems and issues and learning how to fix them.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton is a writer and YouTuber with a PhD in science. He has written and/or produced videos for Science Alert, COSMOS magazine, and Australia's Science Channel among others. Andy started droneflyingpro.com to share his love and the research of all things drone! He has been a drone pilot for many years and has flown many types of drone. His favorite is still the DJI Mavic Air for the portability and functionality packed into a small and portable drone!