Making the movie above nearly cost me my drone. On the last day of this trip to Cinque Terre I got perhaps a little too confident in my flying abilities, and that of the drone.
Although I own a drone, I don’t consider myself as one who “flies drones”. Some like to race them, performing amazing maneuvers or tricks, but that’s not why I have a drone. I see it more as a camera that has wings. Getting the camera away from me and up in the air has opened up a whole new approach to taking pictures. With the drone I can place my lens in places where previously I could only accomplish with a helicopter or plane.
A photographer is always trying to find a new angle, searching for a new way to express themselves or their subject via still images or video. It is what has driven me to climb mountains, rock faces, to go to places where if I didn’t have a camera around my neck and an idea in my head of what a great shot this could be, I would never otherwise have done it. Good photographers are always pushing the envelope.
When I got a drone, I was quite conservative with my flying as I learned how it functioned and flew. I kept close to shore and away from potential objects I could run into. But the more I used the drone, the more it opened me to new possibilities. I’d start thinking, “Well, what if I were to…” I soon learned that if you aren’t getting into a little trouble with your drone, well then, you aren’t pushing yourself to get some really great shots.
But that’s also when I started getting into trouble.
I was in Cinque Terre, on a hillside above Monterosso, at about 8:30 in the morning. We were staying in Levanto, which is quite protected from easterly winds, so when I got up and started heading over to Monterosso I had no idea how much wind there was until I made it to the top of the mountain that separated the two towns, and started down towards Monterosso.
I found a parking place and then a spot where I could launch the drone above the village without bothering anyone. That’s become increasingly important to me these days with so many drones out there – I don’t want to bother other people. So while in Cinque Terre I often launched from the top of a mountain and flew the drone down into the villages I wanted to shoot or film below. With the wind coming from the east it meant that the hillside I was on, which faced west, offered some protection for the drone if I were to keep it close to the hillside. That, I concluded, should still be able to give me the aerial image I wanted. So I launched the drone.
I got it up in the air, and as it headed out I saw there were some power lines it had to go over. I took it up and over them, but then noticed that the drone continued to head out over the water even though I had no longer had my hands on the controls. The wind was taking it out.
I tried to bring it back, and it slowed down some, but it still continued to be swept away. I turned the camera to face me to see where I was so I knew where to go. But then the remote started telling me the radio frequency connection was weak and I started losing the picture. The wind must be taking the drone around the corner where I no longer had a direct line to it. I climbed up the hill, onto the highway and ran as fast as I could to the highest point of the hillside. While doing so I watched on the screen as the drone continued to distance itself from me. And then the camera froze – all I could see on my remote was a locked image – I no longer had visual contact with the drone by eye or by the remote screen, so I had no idea where it may be.
I found a place on the point where I had a better view and angle to where the drone “could” be. The distance reader now said the drone was over 200 meters from me and increasing. I had to do something or I was going to lose the drone. It would be swept out over the ocean, eventually lose its batter power and drop into the Med.
I then thought that there would probably be less wind down near the surface of the water, and also where there was more protection from the hillside as it projected out, so if I were to take the drone down and then try to bring it back in, I may be able to get into more protected territory. I figured I was about 100 meters above sea level, so I took it down to -50 meters, and tried to bring it back towards me. That helped, until another gust came along and took it back out again.
I took it down further and found I could now make progress. The problem was I had no idea where it was – over water or buildings. So I would bring it in some, and then give it a little more elevation. Finally, this plan seemed to be working, although slowly. And then I looked at my battery reading – I was down to 45%. I had used up over half of its battery power battling this wind and I had no idea how much more I’d need to get it back.
I kept this up, bringing it closer, and increasing its altitude, hoping I wouldn’t run it into anything. I noticed on the screen the compass still worked, so I could get a rough idea of where it was in comparison to my position. It was further to the right of me. So I brought it in, more to the left, and continued to increased its elevation. But I still couldn’t see it.
So I just listened, waiting, for the whirring sound it makes as I kept reeling it in, like a fish on a line. And than I saw it, sitting below me about 50 meters out. This time I took it under the power lines and brought it closer to me. I was on a steep cliff standing on a narrow ledge and the last thing I wanted to do was now fall over it trying to catch the drone in my hand. So I decided to go for a crash landing and drove it into some grass at my feet. It crashed, complained, but it was safe.
I learned my limits (and the drone’s) for flying in high winds. This isn’t the first close call, and I’m sure there will be more. For after all, that’s how you get those great shots, challenging yourself and the drone.