A Near-Disaster My First Time Flying a Drone

This will go down as my first-ever drone photo taken only using hand gestures. It’s so bad.

At my day job, we have lots of photography toys. My boss Mark is an excellent photographer in his own right, and he loves gadgets and gear (something we have in common). Recently, he signed up to receive one of the first DJI Spark drones in Atlanta – which was awesome in every way.

DJI makes the best drones. They make the Phantom model that everyone associates with “drone photography,” and the Mavic Pro, which is smaller and more expensive but just as good. And now, they just released the Spark, which is a mini-drone that is meant for everyone – a.k.a., people who don’t know how to fly drones. The big thing about the DJI Spark is that you can fly it without your phone and without a controller; you’re supposed to be able to control it using only hand gestures. Mark got the Spark specifically for this feature, so flying it with “gesture mode” was our main objective when we got it last week.

Some guy came to our office with the brand new Spark drone and tried to show us how it worked, but of course it had a software update and other complications that kept us from really testing it on the delivery day. It wasn’t until the next day that I got to really play around with the drone using gesture mode. I watched some tutorials online and then went outside with the drone by myself – and I got it to work. I launched the drone from my hand, got it to follow my directions, waved it off so that it could take a photo of me, and got it to come back and land in my hand. I was the first person in the office to successfully fly the Spark using only gestures. I felt like a god.

Of course, the feeling was short-lived: I brought the drone back inside and saw that it needed a firmware update. I thought, “I’ll plug it in and make sure that it’s on so that it accepts the firmware update, gets some more power and is ready fly again pronto!” I thought I had powered the drone down, so I wanted to make sure it was turned on to receive the update when I plugged it in – inside our office kitchen.

The DJI Spark only has one button on it that controls all of it’s functions; usually, you press the button in a certain series to get the drone to do different things. To turn it on, you press it once quickly, then press again and hold the button until the drone powers up. You use the same series of button presses to turn it off – which I did not know. After trying to turn the drone off for a second, nothing happened, so I tried pressing the button three times in quick succession. Huge mistake.

When I did that in our office kitchen, the drone suddenly leapt to life – seemingly in “palm launch mode,” a mode that I definitely wanted to avoid. All four rotors started spinning, slowly at first, then faster, as I stammered, “No, no, no, no…” and clutched the body of the drone tighter in my fingers. The drone, determined to take off, spun its rotors faster and faster, pulling against my hand. It could obviously tell it was being restrained and was hell-bent on freeing itself inside the office kitchen, which is not large. Our office has six full-time employees and the kitchen is pretty much sized to accommodate that number of people.

Our office also happens to be dog-friendly, which would normally be irrelevant, but as the drone’s helicopter blades went faster and faster, it started to kick up some tumbleweeds of dog hair. Papers were rattling, dislodging and flying around the kitchen. I was basically pooping my pants – I’m holding a brand new $500 drone, possibly the first of its kind delivered in Atlanta – as our office kitchen turns into a scene from Twister. I was thinking, “I’m getting fired. What if I just let it go? No, it will definitely hit a wall. Press the button a bunch more – that might work. Okay, the button doesn’t work at all, you are definitely getting fired.”

I finally had the good sense to run outside with the thing. The blades were still spinning, the tiny drone body straining against my hand and threatening to break my grip. Once I got outside, the situation honestly didn’t look much better. If I let the drone go, I was certain it would crash – just not into our Mr. Coffee machine, I guess. I pulled out my phone, which ideally would have served as a controller for the drone. It was already set up and synced and everything. Unfortunately, getting my phone open, opened to the correct app, and logged in, then tethering it to the drone was not happening. Holding the drone in my dominant hand while it freaked out and tried to escape from me was a disaster.

Eventually, I resigned myself to the fact that I was probably going to break the thing. I decided to release it with the hope that it wouldn’t fly directly into a tree or a power line, then try to connect my phone, gain control of the drone and land it.

Thankfully, as dumb as drones can be sometimes, they can also be super smart when their human masters fail them. The Spark shot straight up in the air about 60 feet, and I frantically tried to get the controls to work on my phone. When I got everything all linked up, I could see that the Spark was in “return home” mode, and it started navigating back to the parking lot next door where I originally launched it. I had to run-walk underneath it and land it before walking back into my office where, of course, everyone had noticed the ridiculously loud buzzing from our brand new drone getting turned on inside.

The whole experience was way more exciting and exhausting than I hoped my first time flying a drone would be – but, it did make me get a drone of my own ever worse than I did before. Hopefully a drone multimedia gallery is forthcoming on this website.