This is a story of how I could’ve prevented this “adventure” of ours if I had just followed the warnings and RTFM.
If any of you really knew me, you would know that I am a late adopter of technology for many reasons. I prefer to wait for the prices to go down on the novelty of the item and the competition driving the prices down. I also like to wait until it’s been tried and tested so the kinks have been worked out or there are enough firmware updates to solve any major issues. I’ve always been curious with drones, but not being a professional videographer did not justify an expensive toy for me where I couldn’t make the money back. It was with the encouragement of my wife to make more recreational videos that I decided rent the DJI Mavic Pro from Unique Photo for a weekend at the Poconos. After a successful and very fun first weekend with the drone, I decided to jump the gun and make the purchase. To feel more comfortable about flying an expensive wonder of technology around in the real world, I decided to spend hours flying simulations to get acquainted with the controls before I ever touched my first drone controller.
After purchasing my brand new Mavic, I was on my way to Greenville, South Carolina with my wife for a wedding. Over the course of the weekend I flew around different locations and all was well. The maiden flight was over Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Virginia, then over Charlotte, NC for an evening skyline shot. Once we were in South Carolina and finished working the wedding, we visited Falls Park on the Reedy in Greenville. We had big plans to do a long scenic route back to NJ to get more footage of the foliage and mountains. Our first stop heading north was the Fred W. Symmes Chapel, a cliffside chapel located inside a YMCA camp which is also known as Pretty Place for it’s amazing view. I saw some YouTube drone videos of this chapel so I thought I must get some shots myself.
We made our way to the chapel and braved the winter temperatures while my wife took some stills of the scenery and I prepared my drone for some epic videos. Upon liftoff, the Mavic warned me of high winds and to be cautious. I carelessly swiped the notification away because I really wanted my shots, and the drone looked stable. I proceeded to fly it past the chapel into the open space of the mountain side. What a great view I thought, as I flew out further and further to what I had estimated my remote controller range to be (around 1500 feet). Anyone with experience knows the Mavic can technically fly up to 7km from the remote, but here was my first error as a pilot.
I had never checked the actual Max Distance setting in the app, or the fact that you can turn the limit off. I only remember my rental Mavic limited to 1500 feet so I thought that was the technical limit. When I decided the shot was far enough, I started to fly the Mavic back towards me. For a few seconds I thought my remote control wasn’t sending out the signal because no matter how much I pushed the drone towards me, the distance continued to increase. It took a minute of panic for me to realize the wind was pushing the poor guy further and further away from me!
After a few seconds of mental panicking, I decided I would force land the drone on the bottom of the mountainside in a safe area I could spot. At the moment I was also proud of myself for keeping my composure calm and finding a solution. Through the Mavic’s camera I spotted an open field way down the mountain and decided I would fly and land on the grass there. The patch of grass opening had a road so it must be accessible! As I started getting closer to the landing zone, I was feeling better… until a new warning further complicated my rescue operation.
My Mavic was well within throwing distance of the open field when suddenly the remote gave me a Maximum Distance Reached warning… “aghh!” I flew this far only to be stopped by an invisible wall, and now I was forced to land a few dozen feet away from grass and into tall forest trees. With 30% battery left, I did not think I had any other options, so with the camera I started looking for the shortest tree I could find. While hovering over the tree I picked, I performed the emergency shut off function on the drone by pulling the sticks down left and right. The Mavic shut off the motors and fell through some branches and got caught in a branch. It was time to pack up and drive drive drive! Fortunately I have a last known GPS location in the app, so while I navigated, my wife rushed down and around the mountain to get to the patch of grass I landed nearby.
I could have easily prevented the tree landing if I remembered to turn off the “Maximum Distance” option in the app, and proceeded to land anywhere I wanted in the park. Lesson learned.
45 minutes later we arrived near the landing site. I also got lucky that the rescue area was inside a state park next to the parking lot with restrooms and picnic benches, on the convenient side considering all the places I could lose a drone in a forest. We paid the entrance fee by depositing $5 per person in a drop box, which right above was a sign “No Drones.” We followed the GPS signal into the forest only 50 yards or less from the restroom and started to look on the ground as well as high up into the tree branches. It took about 30 minutes of roaming until I finally spotted the little guy hanging up about 60 feet!
Once I had the location of the Mavic marked, I needed to decide how to get it down one way or another. Having DJI Care, I didn’t mind if it fell down into pieces as long as I had the body to return. The first afternoon in the park I used the materials I had in the car. I travel with my archery recurve bow, so my first attempt was to attach a twine to an arrow, shoot over the branch, and tug on the branch hard enough to dislodge the drone. While my aim with the recurve is spot on at 9 meters and decent at 18 meters at a range, it’s a completely different story when I try shooting 90 degrees into the air trying to avoid branches. I could not get the arrow high enough and I also felt like I was going to ruin my bow shooting it incorrectly so I gave up on that idea.
My next option was to try a DIY throw weight by putting rocks into a glove tied to more twine and throwing it up over the branch. I swung the rope and weight over and over and I also could not get the weight close to the 60 feet mark not to mention aiming it correctly over the one branch. I was getting tired and out of immediate options so I decided it was time to go back to our hotel and try again the next day. One of the challenges that made this location difficult was the rough terrain of giant boulders, steep inclines, and the forest floor sprouting with smaller trees and branches just waiting for me to slip, fall, and either stab myself or knock myself out if I wasn’t careful.
After a good night’s rest at a hotel we went to Lowes the next day to pick up some PVC pipes in an attempt to reach the branch and push the drone. We stuffed the car with a combination of 5 feet and 10 feet pipes in order to reach 60 feet. We drove an hour back to the state park and paid another entrance fee. With Gorilla tape ready, we dragged all the pipes through the parking lot, across the grass field, and into the forest. We spent nearly a full work day assembling the pipes, pushing it up along the tree trunk, balancing the wobbly structure, and even wrapping it around a vine, only to have it tumble down over and over again. It started to become disheartening to know all this effort was not paying off and it was getting dark and nearing closing time.
After the second long day, we headed back to the hotel and planned for one last attempt the next day before we would rush home and skip our scenic drive. The third day came and went with no luck so we were on our way back home with 700 miles to go. As much as I was disappointed with the loss, I felt incredibly lucky that my wife was full of ideas as well as being supportive and patient the whole time with my rescue mission.
I did not completely give up yet. We knew we’d be driving back down to Virginia in two weeks for an engagement session, so we could take another road trip down to South Carolina again for rescue mission number 2. In reality, SC is an additional 7 hours south. We decided to stay in Asheville about an hour north of the state park. During the two weeks at home, I did more research on possible ways to get a rope over a tall branch.
I first looked up how to climb trees, which eventually led me to learn about throw weights. Tree climbers who use single rope technique must throw a line over the branch they wish to climb, and to get up really high they use a slingshot to shoot the weight in the air. My arm swinging action just wouldn’t cut it. The pricey $130 tree climber slingshot was not available online or in stores, so I created my own version with a Hyperdog slingshot, a tennis ball launcher for dogs. Since slingshots are illegal in NJ, I had to buy a used one from eBay. I also ordered a 12 oz throw weight and lots of climbing rope of various sizes.
Two weeks had passed and I was ready to retrieve my poor drone which sat out in the mountains for 2 weeks in rain and ice cold weather, I figured DJI would just give me an entirely new device so I wasn’t worried about the rust and any other damage it would incur after I knock it out of the tree. Before we would head into the state park again, I made sure to get some more backup plans ready. I went to Lowes to get an extension pole for extra leverage with the slingshot, and Dick’s for two way radios to communicate with my wife in the park, and two smaller sized crossbows to possibly shoot more arrows into the sky. I also had the bright idea of using a helium balloon to get a string up with hook at the end, reach the drone and yank down. I was trying to find solutions that took the least amount of physical labor because that doesn’t seem productive like the first time.
We were late to the park on the first day, paid the entrance fee, and I tested the balloon first. While the balloon easily reached the height I needed, it was too light to maneuver through branches, so that idea was scrapped. Next I tried hand throwing the throw bag once again with my own strength and once again I couldn’t reach. It was raining and dark, so I called it a quick day and we got some Chinese takeout at the hotel.
The next day we did some office work at a coffee shop and had lunch before heading back to the park. We only had about 2 hours left of daylight at the park when we arrived, spent another $10 for entrance, and now I would test out the slingshot method. The 12 oz throw bag was too heavy for the sling, and luckily I had a mini tennis ball that belonged to our Shih Tzu. I strung some balloon ribbon through the ball and the rest into a bucket for a lightweight throw line. I pulled back, released, and woosh! The little tennis ball traveled better than I expected! I had high hopes now.
Each time I slung the ball over branches, I had to wait for it to come down, cut the ribbon off the ball to retrieve the ribbon into the bucket, retie the ribbon to the ball, and reset the makeshift tree slingshot. I kept trying for almost an hour, the most time consuming part is resetting the setup after each shot and working on my aim. I would check in with my wife and our dog every 10 minutes just to make sure I was still alive. The sun had already set, it was well past 5pm and my wife made her way to the car. She told me all the visitors had left, and the park ranger even came up to check on her. I told her this would be my last shot, gave another final prayer, and fired away. In slow motion, in the dark with barely any contrast, I could just see the little tennis ball reach over the impossibly placed branch the Mavic was sitting on. I can’t believe it worked!
Now it was go time with the ropes. In a hurry and running out of light, I tied one end of the ribbon to a 1/8 inch polyethylene line, pulled it through and tied the end of that to a 750-lb paracord. With the paracord in each hand and looped over the target branch, I started to tug up and down as violently and forceful as I could. A few seconds later I heard a “pop!” The Mavic had fell from one branch to the next one below. I tugged even harder this time to affect the other branch, and lo and behold the Mavic started tumbling down from branch to branch and eventually smacking down on the forest floor. With all this excitement my first reaction was to radio my wife “The Eagle has landed!” She was so excited and also in disbelief that I actually did it.
It was nearing pitch darkness when I started to pack up as fast as possible, throwing everything I could, including the Mavic, into the bucket and rush through the forest, over the grass field, over the bridge and into the parking lot where my wife and dog were patiently and excitingly waiting for me. Our mission was complete! While discussing how much we both thought we had to come back the next morning, we rejoiced in never having to set foot into this park again and started to plan a celebratory dinner that night. We had raw oysters, filet mignon with bone marrow, finished with a Turkish coffee beignet. There was a huge relief off our minds, and we can finally enjoy our last night of rest and looking forward to our trip back home. We really thanked God for letting us accomplish our mission of not losing a $1000 device.
During our whole adventure of coming in and out of the state park multiple times with weapons and large plumbing pipes without a single park ranger spotting us was surprisingly easy. I think we could’ve smuggled in a dead body and get away with it easily.
That night I inspected the Mavic and to my surprise, there was not a scratch on it other than one missing plastic cap, no damaged propellers nor damaged gimbal camera. Drone propellers are extremely delicate since they have to be lightweight and fast, so any contact with even a branch or grass can crack the surface. I performed an emergency shut-off prior to the drone falling into a tree which prevented any high-impact damage. The fall to the forest floor avoiding any rocks did no harm to the Mavic’s shell. I believe it fell on one of its arms where the plastic cap popped off.
The moment of truth was to test the power and internal systems with a fresh battery. I expected it to be completely dead and useless, the drone was not made for all-weather. With the double press of the power button, the triple beep of the drone magically started and the gimbal calibrated itself. Amazing! After tests, the drone was in perfect working condition in terms of flight and camera gimbal. The one part that was damaged was the internal cooling fan.
Once we were home I tested the Mavic on her first flight after two weeks in the wild. In the cold weather, she flew perfectly as if nothing happened. I was also able to retrieve the original video of the flight from Pretty Place. Now I can submit a repair request under my DJI Care Refresh plan and await a perfectly working Mavic soon. I also returned almost everything I purchased from my multiple trips to Lowes and Dick’s.
After all the struggle and effort to retrieve my one week old Mavic, it was worth all of that to witness how well built this little guy is. I can’t wait for the next adventure, but this time I will heed its warnings.