Why do drones lose control? [12 reasons]

I know that when I’m flying my drone, one of the scariest things that run through my mind is – what if I lose control of my drone? Taking your expensive new gadget out into the real world can be a terrifying experience. When I first took out my drone, I was always on the lookout for hazards. As I slowly became more comfortable with piloting my drone, I became cocky. My newfound confidence meant that I was likely to take risks that I wouldn’t have, and shouldn’t have, with my drone.

Drones can lose control for a variety of reasons. You may be flying too fast, out of range, out of your zone of capability, you may clip trees or other overhanging obstacles, and you may be unlucky with the change of weather. Flyways also occur if you do not calibrate your drone.

The number one reason why I have lost control of my drone is due to pilot error. I am entirely aware of where my drone is in 3D space and where it is going most of the time. Luckily, many sensors on modern drones can help you steer clear of obstacles and hazards. I am likely to get distracted on rare occasions, and the most straightforward and slightest of mistakes can result in a catastrophic drone accident. I’ve been fortunate with my lapses of concentration, and nothing crazy has happened to my drone yet.

Here are all things that I pay particular attention to and can answer why drones lose control?

Out of range

Many drone pilots get very excited when they first fly their drone. The excitement may cause drone pilots to fly out of range of the controller.

However, modern and up-to-date consumer drones can typically fly between four and 10 km away from the controller. In my other article – click here – I find that independent testing shows that there is typically a 15% lower flying range than is stated by the manufacturer.

The type of transmission used will determine how far away from the remote control the drone can fly. There are many types of UAV transmissions; here is a brief introduction to what kind of distance you can get from each transmission system. The most common way to connect to a drone is via Wi-Fi. DJI has also developed its own proprietary technology OcuSync to communicate over longer distances.

TechnologyMaximum distance
DJI’s OcuSync7 km (4.3 miles)
DJI’s OcuSync 2.010 km (6.2 miles)
DJI’s Lightbridge1.7 km (0.6 miles)
Wi-Fi300 to 2000 m
Bluetooth10 – 100 m

You can see that DJI’s OcuSync 2.0 is the best in terms of distance. Wi-Fi is commonly used in drones because of the wide availability of smart devices and small electronics.

Flying indoors

Flying indoors increases the risk of losing control of a drone. The error tolerance of the flight is minimal. Also, inside, many different obstructions can quickly contact the drone’s propellers.

Flying close to walls and ceilings can cause different wind currents and directions, making your drone very unpredictable during flight.

Quite often, you can overcome any issues with flying indoors by using cages on the propellers. Many manufacturers provide propeller cages for their drones. Using these cages means that if you accidentally bump into the wall, door, ceiling, or other overhanging obstructions – such as indoor plants, you are unlikely to lose control of the drone resulting in a crash.

Make sure that you choose a small drone to fly indoors and comes with a 360° cage for the propellers. A small drone with complete protection will give you the best opportunity to protect the drone and stop you from losing control during your indoor flying missions.

Clipping propellers

Flying a drone in the real world means that you will encounter a range of different environments.

When I first flew my drone, I took it to a vast open space and ensured no obstacles or obstructions could potentially clip the drone or the propellers.

Very quickly, I took my drone into much more crowded environments with trees and overhanging branches. These environments required me to pay much more attention to where my drone was in 3D space and forced me to understand the feedback I was getting from the drone sensors.

I have also come into contact with power lines, street lights, and other urban infrastructure in urban environments.

Ensuring that you have a direct line of sight with your drone is the only way to guarantee that you will not clip obstructions. Being aware of its location relative to obstacles and potential hazards is the only way to ensure that your drone will not lose control through contact with anything in your immediate area.

Flyways

Drones can fly away for an extensive range of reasons. The main reason for flyways is a pilot error where they have not set the return to home GPS location or a return to home altitude. They can also be caused by flying out of the line of sight, or there may be a compass or GPS error on rare occasions.

If you want to know more about why your drone flies away, you can check out my other article, where I run through everything you need to know – click here to go to the full in-depth article.

why did my drone flyway

A 2016 study focused on the drone control interface and looked at making the drone fly safely. The researchers found that external pilots were considered one of the root causes of frequent drone crashes.

This is because external pilots cause misalignment problems due to different perspectives between drone pilots and drones. According to another 2004 study, misuse accounts for up to 32% of all drone incidents. That’s why it’s so important to master all of your drone’s flight skills and build confidence and abilities early.

Common causes of a flyaway include:

  • not having returned to home enabled
  • setting an inappropriate return to home altitude
  • compass interference
  • flying out of the line of sight
  • unsuitable home point GPS location
  • losing GPS signal
  • and more.

Motor issues

Drones lose control for a variety of hardware issues. The most critical components of the drone are the propellers and the brushless motors.

Propellers need to be kept free of chips and cracks. They are easily damaged during takeoff and landing as they can easily dislodge loose items on the ground and cause them to pass through the propellers.

Moreover, the freedom of movement of the motors is vital to ensure that they can perform at their best.

Anything that can obstruct the motor from moving freely can cause you to lose control of the drone. This could happen before you take off and a prime example of this is a hair wrapped around the motor’s internal components.

Alternatively, your motors could pick up dust and debris during takeoff and landing or throughout their flight. Anything that can inhibit free motion can cause a drone to lose control. Regularly checking your drone’s motors for free movement by simply rotating it with your fingers and checking for any resistance to motion is the simplest method for ensuring a safe flight.

Smart shot accidents

Many drones have a variety of intelligent shot features.

At the simple push of a button, you can capture some incredible shots. The latest DJI drones and the GO4 app have the following intelligent flight shooting modes. These modes allow you to capture impressive footage without the manual flight required to capture such cinematic shots.

  • Rocket: Ascend with the camera pointing downward, keeping the subject in view.
  • Dronie: Fly backwards and upward, with the camera locked on your subject. I use this one all of the time, resulting in a brilliant shot for almost anything.
  • Circle: The drone circles around the subject, keeping a fixed distance away (does not move with the subject)
  • Helix: Fly upward, increasing height while spiralling around the subject.
  • Asteroid: The drone flies backward and upward. It takes several photos, then flies to its starting point. It is creating a “little planet” type of shot.
  • Boomerang: The drone flies backward around the subject in an oval path, rising as it flies away from its starting point. It then descends as it flies back in.

As soon as you activate these shots, it can be complicated to stop them if you panic. The drone will rely on its sensors and visual positioning systems to avoid obstructions and stop the drone from losing control.

Be warned, however. Some of these drones are better than others and performing these automated shots in environments with significantly crowded airspace. If you are going to use these automated shot features, be sure you know where the “panic button” is for stopping the drone midair should you notice any issues with the safety.

Flying towards the pilot

Flying towards a pilot instantly swaps the left and right controls of the drone. It can be one of the most challenging aspects of flying a drone using a direct line of sight method.

The only way to get used to this exchange of left and right is by regularly practising flying the drone toward you.

You can make it easier by looking through the viewfinder and using the drone’s first-person view video stream to practice. Alternatively, you can purchase a drone that has a headless mode.

Not all drones offer a headless mode. Headless mode is beneficial for beginners because the drone remains agnostic to the direction it is pointing. The agnostic orientation means that no matter which direction the drone is pointing, the drone will always move in the joystick direction. This feature bypasses one of the biggest obstacles for new drone pilots, which is when the drone flies towards you, the left and right controls are reversed.

Flying out of the line of sight

Flying out of the line of sight also causes a huge number of issues for drone pilots.

We’ve all been tempted to sneak around a tree, building, cliff, or other obstruction, but many countries flying laws and regulations require that the drone is in the line of sight of the pilot at all times.

If you end up losing direct line of sight to your drone, you are essentially flying blind.

Flying blind means that you are 100% relying on the drones sensors and visual positioning systems to navigate your 3D environment safely. Even for the most experienced of pilots, this is a very tricky situation to find yourself in.

Some drones have 360° sensors, which means they can fly through even the most tricky environments autonomously. However, most drones only have forward, backwards, and downwards sensors.

You can also lose control of your drone by flying goggles that stream the live first-person view footage. Using drone goggles means that you cannot quickly check the drone’s current position using the direct line of sight and should only be used for racing drones or other niche applications of drone technology.

Wind gusts

Anything above a force seven wind which is approximately 17 to 20 m/s (38 – 45 mph), is far too high to be flying a drone. As a rule of thumb, for commercially available drones such as the DJI Mavic series and the phantom series, you shouldn’t fly in winds greater than two-thirds of the maximum flight speed of your model of drone.

Flying in winds that are any higher than two-thirds of the maximum flight speed of your drone can cause you to lose control quickly. If you want to know more about safe wind speeds for DJI drones, check out my other article, where I go through everything you need to know about safe wind speeds and drones – click here to be taken to the in-depth article.

What is a Safe Wind Speed For DJI Drones?

Inexperienced pilots

inexperienced pilots can also cause a huge variety of accidents. Drones are designed to be flown within minutes of receiving the package and opening the box. Many drones have a beginner mode, which allows the pilot to fly the drone easily and safely at lower speeds as soon as they can switch on the drone and connect to the remote control.

This ability to fly quickly gives drone pilots – especially new pilots – confidence in their abilities.

It takes a while to build up the skills to fly confidently at high speeds and in various environments.

Drones are a tool, and like any other tool, you need to understand all of the functional components and options for your drone to fly exactly the way you want it to.

Too many new drone pilots get heroic in the first few days after owning their drone – because it looks very simple – but the simplest of silly mistakes can easily lead to a drone being damaged and broken.

Only by slowly increasing your skills and getting to know all of the software and hardware functions of the drone, remote control and apps can you ensure that your drone returns safely after each flight. It is also highly recommended that you familiarise yourself with all of your local laws and regulations.

No GPS lock

Drones also lose control because of pilots rushing to fly without proper GPS lock.

GPS lock on a drone enables the safe and stable flight of a drone.

The first thing is to make sure that you are always flying in a location that has a strong GPS signal. On the GO4 app, there is a little satellite signal indicator. The satellite indicator tells you how many satellites are providing information to the drone to keep it stable. The drone will not enter GPS mode until it reaches eight GPS satellite signals. I would not take off if I only had eight GPS satellite signals. That means that if you lose one of the signals, your drone could quickly go into atti–mode.

ATTI stands for Attitude Mode. In this mode, GPS sensors are disabled, as are global navigation satellite systems (which will mean that the drone will drift with the wind) and object avoidance sensors. This mode will test your flying ability and could potentially cause you to lose control in the slightest of winds.

I do not take off unless I have at least 12 to 14 strong satellite signals. This gives me enough buffer if a number of the satellite signals are lost and gives me peace of mind while flying.

You should also avoid flying near these types of areas:

  • areas with high signal interference – this is common when travelling in cities with skyscrapers and places where you are flying amongst tall trees or mountain ranges around you.
  • Flying inside – if you are flying indoors, the concrete and steel case can block the satellite signals.
  • Flying underground – we’ve all been there with our drone when we want to explore the inside of a cave or up the face of a mountain or overhang. These are perfect places for GPS signals to become weak and get lost.
  • Solar storms – allow this to happen very rarely, the last event happened in 1859; a solar storm can knock out and affect any orbiting satellites that the GPS relies on.

The common connector between all of the above issues is the lack of seeing the sky. Before you fly, plan your flight area and look up into the sky. If you can see a lot of it, then the GPS signal will likely be strong. On the other hand, if the sky is obscured by trees, buildings, earth, or any other absorbent material, you risk losing GPS signal, and the drone may automatically switch into Atti mode.

Panic

Lastly, panic can easily cause people to lose control of their drones.

Inexperience and overconfidence is a combination for new pilots to crash their drones. Learning what to do in every situation you encounter will slowly develop with experience.

Most drones have a panic button that will pause the drone in midair. If you have a GPS stabilise drone, removing inputs into the joystick will cause the drone to hover in place and not move. Sometimes, the best thing you can do with your drone in a stressful situation is to do nothing.

Consumer-level drones have been designed to look after themselves and will even return home if the battery gets low or you decide to bring it home with a push of the return to home button.

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!