Why did my drone fly away? [+what you can do about it]

Sending an expensive piece of equipment up into the sky is always a little bit nerve-racking. Although there is a very small risk of it not returning the consequences of a drone away is that you may lose about $1000 worth of equipment. That is enough to scare anyone into not flying their drone as often as they want. There are many drones that are designed to return to home if you lose signal or Wi-Fi connection to the drone. However, this isn’t a 100% fail-proof option. A drone may not return this is known as a “flyaway” by the drone community. Let’s answer the question: why did my drone fly away?

Drones can flyaway for a majority of reasons. The main reason is pilot error where they have not set the return to home GPS location, they have not set an appropriate return to home altitude, it can also be caused by flying out of the line of sight or in rare occasions it may be that there is a compass or GPS error.

The good news is that the majority of flyaway’s are actually caused by pilot error rather than a software or hardware malfunction. A study in 2016 looked at how to fly a drone safely by focusing on the drone control interface. They found that external piloting is considered as one of the fundamental causes of frequent drone crashes and that is because the external piloting a causes a misalignment problem due to the difference between the perspectives of the drone pilot and the drone. Another study in 2004 found that uses mistakes contribute up to 32% of all drone incidents. This is why it’s so important to get on top of all of the drone flying skills and build confidence and capability early.

Also, after your drone has flown away there are a few options that you can look at for retrieving the drone with relative ease. We will also look at the best way to retrieve your drone if it has flown away.

In this article we are going to look at what causes drone flyway is and how now you can make sure that pilot error is not a contributing factor to your potential drone flyway.

What causes a flyaway?

Flyaway’s are caused by a load of different reasons. At the core of many of these reasons is pilot error rather than any significant software or hardware issues. Here are some of the most important things that you should make sure that you don’t get wrong before heading out on your drone flying mission.

Return to home not enabled

Many high end consumer drones now include a return to home (RTH) function. This is commonly a home point that is set via GPS location if you have at least eight GPS satellites connected to your drone – at least in the case of DJI drones.

If you open up your settings many drones do this setting of a return to home location automatically when you take off. Also, some of the drones also take photographs of the takeoff location so that you end up with a precision landing if you opt for an automatic return to home.

If you decide to take off before a strong GPS signal is achieved you can manually reset the home point in the settings of a range of drone apps and interfaces. My recommendation is that you never fly without a strong GPS signal (where you have at least eight GPS satellites) and you doublecheck that you have a home point recorded.

You can also change the home point or have the drone return to the GPS location of the controller if you are moving during the mission. A return to home setting is your last-ditch attempt of getting your drone back safely if you have signal loss or are in some other way unable to communicate with the drone. Take this setting seriously and I can assure you that the majority of your flyaway issues will be solved!

Set an appropriate return to home altitude

Setting an appropriate return to home altitude will also mean that your drone can get home safely if you decide to activate the return to home feature. I like to set my return to home altitude set at 60 m. This is because where I fly, in Australia, there are some very tall trees such as gum trees that could easily grow beyond 30 m.

The reason it is important to set an appropriate return to home altitude is that drones are clever but not clever enough to avoid and go around some obstacles. It’s much better to fly over them then have the drone try to guess a best path through them. Drones like the Mavic air do include some obstacle avoidance but it’s best not to rely on them but rather have them as a failsafe if there is no other option for you.

In summary, I recommend that you set a return to home altitude that is taller than the tallest obstacles in between you and the drone. You can change this in the app settings.

Compass interference

Compass interference is something that is regularly used as an excuse for drone flyway. Quite often a drone that has a compass enabled will tell you to recalibrate the drone compass and will talk you through the process. Essentially it is about having the drone do rotations around a couple of axes so that it can get a sense of where North is again.

These sorts of questions get asked regularly and there is a video from DroneU where they talk about compass interference in detail:

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. The thing is that 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.

In the DJI GO4 app you can see the interference by going to settings> advanced> compass and look at the interference indicator. You will be able to do your own seeing the interference indicator increase as you bring your drone to magnetically charged objects.

You may be surprised at how little it really does change but there are some things that will cause it to move a lot. In my experience the biggest issue is reinforced concrete. I like to take off on flat surfaces and I often find flat concrete surfaces to take off from however the iron reinforcement on the inside of the concrete causes significant Compass interference.

As a rule of thumb you should stay away from:

  • cars
  • power lines
  • huge metal deposits like junkyards
  • any large metallic structure such as sheds
  • any large speakers – they have magnets on the inside

a Mavic owner tried to create compass interference by bringing his belt buckle, keys, and other personal effects close to the drone. It was only when the phone is a speaker was on top of the drone that there was significant interference. They note that the only consistent way to produce interference was to place a pocketknife on top of the battery compartment. So you don’t need to be too worried about having any metallic objects in your pocket or near the drone during takeoff.

To check that your calibration is well all you have to do is take off and do some yawing at a altitude of about 10 m. Check your screen and see if the movements correspond with the direction that the drone is being yawed.  This simple check is something that will save you a lot of headaches if you are worried about compass miscalibration

Flying out of line of sight

Another way of increasing your chances of a drone flyway is to fly out of the line of sight of the pilot. It is very easy to get confused and disorientated if you cannot see the drone in the air. In many jurisdictions the rules stipulates that you should fly a drone in line of sight and this will make sure that you have complete control of the drone and there you are not flying it in places that you are not allowed to.

Flying out of the line of sight is tricky particularly if you are using goggles to fly. For many drone flyers goggles are not a requirement of flight and so a line of sight is easy to achieve at all times.

I think there isn’t a drone flyer who hasn’t been tempted to fly behind something or just slightly out of line of sight I know that sometimes trees get in the way of my drone flying plan. However you should minimise how often you fly your drone out of line of sight and that full significantly decrease the likelihood of a flyaway.

The good thing about having line of sight at all times means that even if your camera feed gets interrupted you can still fly the drone toward yourself. If you want some more tips on how to fly a drone safely and confidently check out my other article – how to improve dragonfly skills. Eight simple steps! – Click here.

One of the things I recommend in this article is that you practice flying toward yourself – this is one of the best ways to ensure that your drone doesn’t fly away from you and that when the battery is low you don’t panic and send a drone in the opposite direction.

You moved and did not reset home point

One of the other ways that a drone may have flown away from you is if you have moved through the course of the flight.

When a drone takes off it will often automatically record a return to home and landing GPS location. If you are having a drone follow you then you’re probably not landing in the same place you took off from. This could be if you are running, cycling, kayaking, or any other activity.

It is relatively simple to have the drone follow either the location of the remote controller or have the GPS home point location updated. For each drone manufacturer this will be different.

GPS signal lost

One of the final reasons but most unlikely is that you have lost your GPS signal or location. The only time that this becomes a real issue is if you are flying in a situation where your drone cannot see a significant portion of the sky.

In this instance the drone may go into what is called ATTI mode. Anti-mode stands for attitude mode. In this mode the GPS sensors are disabled as other global navigation satellite systems – this means the drone will drift with the wind and potentially flyaway.

If you want to know more about ATTI mode check out my other article – what is drone ATTI mode – click here.

So there we have all of the reasons why your drone may have flown away. It can be very frustrating if you experience a flyaway but rest assured that you will learn from it and will not make the same mistakes that you made this time.

If you are in the unfortunate position of having been through a flyaway here are the things that you can do to find a drone that flew away.

How do I find a drone that flew away?

Finding a drone that flew away can be very frustrating but the good thing is that with GPS technology and on-board cameras that can stream footage to your phone or other smart device it is easier than ever to find a lost drone. There are apps, and other software features that can help you find a lost drone let’s talk about that.

Find my drone app

Find my drone is a free app that has been designed to connect your iPhone to your drone. They do this using the popular MAVLink protocol. If you are forced to land your drone some distance away from you this app will determine its GPS location and is distance from you. It has an inbuilt compass that can direct you to the drone saving you the time and effort required to sweep an entire area.

Features of FIND MY DRONE include:

  • MapView with drone location plus device location shown
  • Current System Status i.e. RTL (return-to-launch), STABILIZE, LOITER… etc.
  • FIND MY DRONE will remember the last received coordinates even if the drone’s power fails
  • FIND MY DRONE view includes;
    • compass indicating your orientation and direction of the drone from your current position
    • current battery voltage information (if you have an active lock)

There are many other apps in the App Store for iPhone and android so you’ll need to find one that works on your phone and with your model of drone. Normally I just search for the most popular ones and give them a go to see if they fit my requirements.

Check last known GPS location

You can check the last known GPS location of the drone if you’re controller dies and runs out of battery. Alternatively if you’re controller has not died the controller will usually store the drone’s last known location on the screen before the communication was lost. If you know at what direction you are flying when the connection was lost you have minimise the search area of your drone finding mission.

Check the streamed footage

If you have a drone that captures footage while you are flying it will generally also stream and cache the footage on your phone. Have a look through the last collected footage from your drone to see if you can identify any significant features or landmarks that will be able to navigate towards.

Using the streamed footage that is captured automatically on your device is one of the best ways to find your drone if you do not have a tracker or GPS installed all available.

Conclusion

So, this should answer the question why did my drone flyway? Flyway is can happen for a majority of reasons however pilot error is the number one cause of drone incidents and flyaways. Keep learning and invest in your skills to make sure that you don’t end up with pilot error being the main cause of your drone headaches!

You should consider setting out a detailed flight plan so that you won’t be caught short by missing out some of the most important steps mentioned in this article. It can be challenging to keep on top of all of the different bits and steps that you need to go through before taking off – but being a good drone pilot means that you have systems in place that mean you don’t forget any of this. An extra five minutes on the ground can save you a lot of headaches and potentially losing your drone for good.

Good luck with your drone flying and I hope that you never experience a significant flyaway where you are not able to find your drone afterwards!

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!