This is a story of how two Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 drones (DJI, Amazon) ended up in two 140-foot-high white oak trees. And how they were safely retrieved during our drone rescue operation last weekend. Without pointing fingers, we’ll take a look at what went wrong, what went right, and what lessons can be learned for future drone operations. Best to grab a cup of coffee for this somewhat lengthy story.
Drone rescue operation: two DJI Phantom 4s get stuck in 140-foot-high trees
Last Friday, I met up with one of my drone friends who was flying a drone to map an area. As I arrived at the location, I texted him to let him know I was there. Right away, I got a reply, telling me, “be right over we just had a problem.”
It turned out that the problem was a DJI Phantom 4 that had flown away. After successfully completing a mapping mission, the drone decided to fly away instead of returning home. The pilot in control saw on the app that the drone was flying back to the launch location, however, when he looked up in the air it was obvious that the drone was not flying home at all. Instead, it was flying in the opposite direction. It is still unclear why the unmanned aircraft would fly the entire mission successfully, but at the end failed to return home.
When I spoke to the pilot, he told me that he saw the drone disappear in the distance and fly into the trees about half a mile away. The last image he had seen on the app showed the sky and some small branches. Based on the direction and the information from the pilot, I decided to walk into the forest to try and find the drone. I knew my chances of finding the DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 were slim to non-existent, but hey it was a Friday afternoon and a beautiful day, so why not give it a try?
Needle in a haystack
The pilot relayed to me that the drone had disappeared in a group of tall trees to the left of a transmission tower on the hills on the opposite side of the valley. So, I walked to the other side and into the woods. It was difficult to find the area where the drone had crash-landed since I could not walk in a straight to that location. Furthermore, where I entered the forest, I wasn’t able to see the tower anymore. Luckily I knew the area fairly well, so based on my sense of direction, I kept walking into the woods. Every so often, I would stop and scan the treetops for a white DJI Phantom 4. I didn’t see anything.
After having walked and stopped a number of times, I realized that even though the last visual from the app indicated that the drone had flown into a tree, that didn’t mean it was still stuck up there. There was a good chance it would have fallen down. So from that moment on, I scanned both the treetops as well as the ground around me for a crashed drone. My heart sank, as I realized that the chances of finding the aircraft were slim, very slim. I’d probably had a better chance of winning the NY State Lottery than finding the DJI Phantom 4.
As I walked further and further into the woods, I came across the drone pilot and his helper. They had driven to the other side of the woods and entered along a fire road. We were roughly in the area where the drone was last seen and discussed our plans, realizing that we would have to be very lucky to find the drone at all. The woods we were in are hilly, rocky, swampy area covered with thorn bushes and white oak trees well over one hundred feet high. How on earth were we supposed to find anything in here? Let alone a drone!
As we ventured further into the woods, we decided to break up. I was going to turn left and slowly arch my way back and the other two would stay on the left side and continue along the trail. As we were talking, I looked around to my left, and suddenly a white profile caught my eye. I instantly recognized the iconic profile of the DJI Phantom 4 and even though I couldn’t quite believe it yet, I said out loud: “I see it. It’s up in the tree over here!”
We spotted the DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 in the tree. What are the chances of that?
Sure enough, way high in the tree at the end of a branch, a DJI Phantom 4 was caught in some small twigs and branches. We still couldn’t quite believe that we had just found the drone! I texted my friend, who had stayed behind to finish up the project with a second quadcopter, that we had just found his drone. And, while we were very excited, we also started to realize that retrieving the unmanned aircraft from this very tall white oak was going to be another challenge in itself.
Drone rescue operation in full swing
We decided that the safest and most practical way to retrieve the drone would be to use the second DJI Phantom 4 and to try and fish the first drone out of the tree. We all went back to our base location and discussed how to proceed and to see what materials we had available to launch the drone rescue operation.
We collected some tape, ropes, and a few bungee cords that we planned to attach to the second DJI Phantom 4 so that we could try to fish the crashed drone out of the tree. In theory, this sounded like a feasible plan, however, we quickly found out how difficult it was to perform this successfully.
Our drone rescue set up.
Back in the forest we attached the two bungee cords to the Phantom and secured it with the tape. This way we had a line and hook that hung about two feet below the rescue drone.
Then, the second challenge began. First, the drone pilot had to launch the rescue aircraft and safely fly it out of the dense forest, to get above the crashed drone. The pilot was able to get out of the woods and above the drone. The app showed us an elevation of 128 feet. The crashed drone was stuck in the white oak at about 125 feet of the ground. Yes, these trees are huge indeed!
Trying to get close enough to rescue the stuck drone is nearly impossible because of the wind.
Much harder than we thought…
It quickly turned out that our drone rescue operation was very difficult to execute. It was really windy, which not only made it hard to keep the rescue drone in one position, but it also made the bungee cord swing back and forth underneath the unmanned aircraft. To make things even more difficult, the treetops and branches moved in the wind as well. After about 15 minutes of trying to hook the crashed Phantom, the battery ran low and we were forced to bring the rescue Phantom down.
We swapped out the battery, improved the bungee-hook system and sent the drone back up. In the second try, the pilot became a little more aggressive to try and hook the other drone. It is incredibly difficult to catch it because if you look at the app and while having the camera of the drone turned downward, you can try and position the rescue drone right over the crashed drone (keep in mind that the wind makes both drones move constantly), but the top-down visual gives you no information as to how close the hook is to the crashed drone in terms of elevation.
When looking on the screen it is very difficult to estimate how close you are in terms of elevation to the other drone.
Looking away from the app and up into the trees, is not much use either as at a 125-foot distance, it is very hard to see exactly what is going on and how far away the bungee hook is from the crashed drone. A few times the hook caught on, but instead of catching the drone, it grabbed one of the branches. When this happened for the second or third time the pilot tried to free the rescue drone and steer it sideways. When the second Phantom 4 finally broke free, the props were spinning so fast that it shot sideways straight into another white oak nearby. The drone rescue operation suddenly changed into an even bigger problem as we now have two drones stuck in two different very tall white oak trees.
After looking at our situation in disbelief (and shouting a few profanities), we also realized that the rescue drone still has the memory card on board with hundreds of photos that made up the second part of the mapping project. So, not only are two DJI Phantom 4 Pro drones stuck into two incredibly high trees, the mapping project itself is now at risk as well. I feel pretty bad at this point because even though I found the original drone, I was also the one who suggested to film the rescue operation with the other drone as it would make for a nice story for DroneDJ.
Change of plans
The four of us stood in the middle of the forest and discussed our options. It was getting late and with only a few more hours of daylight. The weather forecast for the next day didn’t look good with a 100% chance of rain starting around noon. Yikes. As we considered our options, my friend said that his brother is a professional tree climber and even though he lives five hours away, he might be able to help.
Fast forward to Saturday morning early, we’re back in the forest. My friend’s brother did indeed make the drive down and brought all his climbing gear. By the time I arrive, he is already halfway up into the first tree more than 50 feet of the ground. It was incredible to watch this guy climb the white oak. He was totally at ease and methodically climbed his way up.
It probably took about an hour to get close to the first crashed drone. And with the use of a pole-saw, he was able to free it. The branches where the drone was stuck were so thin that getting any closer to the aircraft was impossible. Upon being freed the DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 falls to the ground and miraculously lands into an area of soft soil, avoiding all the rocks. The drone is still heavily damaged but most of it should be repairable.
Vertical pano of the white oak. These trees are huge. The tree-climbing brother, in the red circle, still had quite some ways to go before getting near the drone.
The second tree where the other drone with the memory card was stuck, proved even harder to climb. The brother, and tree-climbing expert, used his skills to work around several branches and after about an hour he was close enough to the drone that was dangling in the wind on one of the bungee cords, to cut it free with the pole-saw as it is started to rain. This drone too tumbles out of the white oak from about 130 feet high to the ground.
The drone itself is muddy but apart from a broken gimbal, the aircraft itself seems hardly damaged at all. The memory card was retrieved and luckily all the data was still intact. Phew. The project was saved and with some repairs, both drones should be back in the air soon.
We patted each other on the back as we were all relieved. Not only did we have the drones back and the data safe, most importantly the brother made it safely back to the ground as well. Nobody got hurt and all is good.
DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 damaged but repairable.
Lessons learned from our drone rescue operation
- When a less experienced drone pilot is flying an unmanned aircraft, the experienced drone pilot should always stay close and ready to take over the controls at any moment.
- Learn how to fly your drone in ATTI (Attitude) mode so that when you experience a GPS error or fly-away, you can quickly switch the drone into ATTI mode and fly the aircraft back manually.
- Send the drone up to avoid hitting any obstacles as you assess the situation.
- Trying to ‘fish’ a drone out of a tree with another drone is very hard, if not impossible to do. In most cases, it is probably not worth trying as there is a good chance you will lose the rescue drone as well.
- Always secure and back up the data first as any experienced photographer will tell you. We wanted to capture the rescue operation and almost lost half the project when the second drone with the memory containing hundreds of photos got stuck as well.
- Make sure you have your drones insured.
- Convince your brother or friend to become a professional tree climber, just in case…
So with that, an exciting weekend came to an end. Luckily it all worked out in the end and the damages were minimal. We wanted to share this story so that other drone pilots can learn from our mistakes. If you have any good tips and constructive feedback on what we could have done differently, please let us know in the comments below. Negative comments will be removed.