Drowned Drones: When a Multicopter Hits the Water

Parrot AR Drone hovering over open water. Photo: solarthermienator/flickr
Parrot AR Drone hovering over open water. Photo: solarthermienator/flickr

As land dwellers, we are used to seeing terrain from above. It’s relatively easy to get above it all by going to your nearest tall building and taking an elevator to the top floor. Aerial perspectives of the ocean, however, are special, and most of the activities that take place in the ocean are rarely seen from above. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in coastal areas take walks on the beach, observing people wading, swimming, and surfing. If we’re lucky, we see some awesome surfers riding large waves way offshore, or the fin of a dolphin break the surface fleetingly as it comes up for a quick breath of air.

The possibility of new perspectives on the ocean has long driven my interest in aerial imaging using multicopters. The sudden availability of ready-to-fly quadcopters about a year ago put those unobtainable views within reach; suddenly, flying cameras were a reality. After months of practice, I sent a gimbal-mounted GoPro on a DJI Phantom quadcopter over the ocean to capture footage of surfers at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz. I used a brushless gimbal for stability, and the footage straight out of the camera looked like it had been captured using a SteadiCam.

The video went viral because the footage was so unusual, and I received hundreds of comments and questions about how I was able to get the footage. Since then, aerial imagers like Eric Sterman have taken aerial imaging of surfers to a new level. His viral North Shore Pipeline video is truly awesome, and has likely stirred the imaginations of countless future aerial videographers.

Inexpensive consumer quadcopters have opened up amazing new possibilities, but sending a flying contraption out over water is not without real risk. A crash on land can result in breaking propellers and various parts of an aerial imaging rig, but a crash over water usually means total loss. Even if you manage to retrieve your aircraft, you will likely lose all of your electronics, your camera, and your gimbal. Getting footage back is about all you can hope for, and even that isn’t a given. A fully-loaded DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter with gimbal, GoPro and first-person view transmitter (FPV) is currently worth about $1,400. Losing a rig like that is very painful, but losing a larger multicopter with a gimbal-mounted SLR can cost upwards of $10,000.

I’m not writing theoretically about the risks. Within a few months of my Steamer Lane video going viral, eight of my friends dunked over 15 multicopters and cameras into various bodies of water. Here is what they lost:

1. The first and most magnificent of the multicopter dunkers is Keri Wilk, who makes gimbals and other quadcopter accessories over at Rotorpixel. Keri has dunked four DJI Phantom quadcopters into oceans and lakes. He is a fantastic underwater photographer with a love for the ocean, and flies over the water because he “can get novel perspectives that you can’t get, otherwise.” Keri is motivated by the “new and different perspective on the same subjects we’ve all been shooting in the past.”

The first loss was a Phantom and GoPro combination at Isla Guadalupe, Mexico during a great white shark cage-diving trip. The quadcopter descended because the battery was low and happened to fall in the water near the shark cages. Keri and Lawrence Groth, the expedition leader (also a prestigious member of this list), exchanged a few looks, each trying to decide whether it would be worth jumping into shark-infested waters to retrieve the rig. Neither of them did it. Keri still has the GPS coordinates, so if you want to dive down to 400′ in great white shark feeding grounds, there is a Phantom, GoPro and SD card down there for you.

Keri’s second loss was in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. After quite a few flights with no problems, his DJI Phantom (again, with mounted GoPro camera), started behaving erratically. “It was squirrelly and didn’t react well to stick movements, ending in a dive. It immediately started to sink,” Keri said. Keri was in Isla Mujeres to photograph the hundreds of whale sharks that aggregate there every summer. Luckily, whale sharks only eat plankton, so Keri jumped into the water and swam to where the quadcopter had gone down. He free-dived to 20′ and managed to recover the Phantom. Back on the boat, he pulled the batteries out of both the Phantom and GoPro, flushed everything out with fresh water, and dried everything out. The GoPro is still working, but the Phantom now flies “a little funky.”

The third Phantom (and GoPro) to go down was in Ontario, Canada, where Keri was getting follow shots of his friends jumping off of a cliff into a freshwater lake. He dropped the Phantom off the cliff a bit too fast, and the whole thing went underwater. Panicking, Keri gave the Phantom full throttle, and even though the quadcopter was completely submerged, it surfaced and proceeded to fly out of the water! There was dead silence from all of his friends, but Keri says that it was pretty cool to see it flying with water pouring out of it. Nothing was destroyed except for the battery, and the quadcopter survived so Keri and his friends could launch fireworks at it one evening.

The fourth Phantom was snagged by a thin branch as Keri flew low over a river, holding the quadcopter “like a noose” half way submerged in the river. The motors filled with mud, but after cleaning everything out, that particular Phantom still works.

Now, Keri puts Waterbuoy keychains floats on his quadcopters, which are small, water-activated flotation devices. His only goal when he loses a Phantom is to salvage the memory card, but he continues to clean them all out in the hopes that they will recover.

2. Tom Gruber, a co-founder of Siri, is also an ocean lover. He is an avid scuba diver and underwater photographer, and bought a DJI Phantom after I showed him some aerial ocean footage during a lunch chat at Apple. Tom spends a lot of weekends in Santa Cruz, where he loves to watch brown pelicans hunting just off of the coast. A few months ago, there was an unprecedented anchovy run near Santa Cruz, and pelicans, sea lions, and whales were out in huge numbers. Without ever having seen nor flown a quadcopter, Tom stuck a housed GoPro on his brand-new Phantom and took off. He caught on really quickly as a pilot, and immediately flew over the raft of pelicans to get footage of the crazy feeding activity (did I mention that Tom loves pelicans?).

Tom remembers it well. “Then, this guy walks over and asks, ‘Hey, how long do those things [fly]?”‘ I thought, ‘Hmmm, I don’t know.’ At that moment, the Phantom went down.”

Tom ran out into the surf, but couldn’t get to where the Phantom was. He asked a surfer to help “find the helicopter,” and after some moments of confusion (a helicopter? what?), the surfer saw the Phantom’s lights, which were still flashing even though it had already sunk to the sandy bottom. The surfer retrieved the Phantom, shook if off, put it on his surfboard, and brought it back to shore.

Tom took the Phantom home, washed it out in fresh water, took it apart, and let it dry. When he put it back together, the Phantom booted, but went immediately into failsafe mode. Luckily, the GoPro was in a housing, and the footage survived, which is great for us because I asked Tom to upload for this article.

At this point, “I’ve gotten the bug,” Tom says. “The anchovy run was unbelievable, and I have to do this again.” Tom bought another Phantom.

The next weekend, Tom planned to practice flying. But the first thing Tom saw when he work up in Santa Cruz was a pelican feeding frenzy. He immediately flew the Phantom out and got “awesome footage, 10-15′ above the water. Then, a big brown pelican takes a dive for the fish, clips the Phantom and takes the quadcopter down with it. I tried to recover it, but there was too much surf out there. Even a surfer couldn’t find it, and the footage is all gone.”

These days, Tom puts just enough floatation on his Phantom for it to be buoyant if it hits the water, and has placed orange duct tape on the back so he can more-easily see aircraft orientation. He also puts signs on it saying that there is a reward for return. Tom is also investigating Liquipel-coated Phantoms, which are being advertised by DSLRPros.

3. Lawrence Groth owns Shark Diving International, and runs shark-encounter expeditions all around the world. Lawrence bought DJI Phantoms with GoPros attached to them so he could “fly around Guadalupe [Island] and get amazing footage that you can’t get any other way.” He makes a trip DVD for each participant and uses the aerial footage to supplement the topside and underwater footage. “Everyone really likes it—you can see more of the island, and more of the boat.”

Lawrence has lost three DJI Phantoms. “Two were just fly-aways.” Lawrence states. “The Phantom decided to fly away—there was some kind of problem early on.” Lawrence and his team now put crab pot floats on Phantoms so they can retrieve them if they go down. “Insurance requires that you bring back the carcass,” Lawrence says. “I don’t expect them to ever work, again.”

It’s sad, but the crash footage is fun to watch.

“It would be nice to have one that could go underwater and be recoverable.” Lawrence says. “Coat the boards, or something. But it is what it is. It’s part of the risk, and I guess it’s part of the thrill. Not many people are taking them over water, so you get great footage. It’s a great tool.”

Lawrence just bought an octocopter so he can put RED Epics and other big cameras in the air. The octocopter uses a Droidworx frame, Mikrokopter flight controller, Freefly gimbal, and takes two people to operate.

“But I still love the Phantom. It’s my favorite. I fly it off my roof.”

Jeffrey’s brand-new QuadH2o quadcopter.

4. Jeffrey Hartog is a surgeon in Florida. He is also an accomplished underwater photographer (see a pattern, here?), and has lost three quadcopters. “I got the idea to fly over water when we go diving. Also, where I live there are mangroves. It’s hard to fly and not be over water.”

Jeff’s first loss, a DJI Phantom, was as he puts it, “a total screw up. I tried putting floats on the Phantom, and they were too heavy. The thing crashed and fell into the pool after hitting the side of the house.”

Jeff’s second loss was a brand-new QuadH2o he had put together (a waterproof quadcopter frame). “While flying over the intercoastal, chasing a jet ski, it just flew away. Naza 2 had just come out.”

The third quadcopter was a DJI Phantom. “I took a Phantom out to Ecuador to get footage of manta rays from the air, and I misjudged how much battery time there was. I also got caught up with a bunch of frigate birds, which were dive bombing it. It got back to about 10 feet from the boat before it hit the ocean.” When Jeff retrieved the GoPro, the footage from the most-recent flight was gone.

Jeff has built a new QuadH2o, but has been on a bit of a hiatus because he’s been building “the big one”—a gyrocopter.

Fragments of John’s S800 and SLR.

5. Jon Cornforth is a nature photographer who does the majority of his work in or near the ocean. His interest in aerial imaging is driven by his desire to film interesting group behavior of wildlife from a new perspective. “Everyone on the internet is a great photographer these days. [Aerial photography] is a new challenge—I’m interested in new things, and pushing things forward.”

As for the ocean, John’s says his motivation from day one was to fly over water. “My tolerance [of risk] is higher, or I’m more stupid!” he jokes. During the interview, John told me that he was refreshed that a bunch of other people have also lost multicopters over water, and that he wasn’t he only one to have done so.

Jon’s first catastrophic crash was a DJI S800 with a Wookong-M flight controller and Canon Rebel SL1 SLR hard-mounted on it. He asked a local distributor whether the GPS system in Wookong would work at high latitudes because a note in the manual for Wookong said that it might not. “They said that as long as you have enough satellites, it would work.” Unfortunately, he found out the hard way that the note was in there for good reason. John brought his S800 and Phantom to 74º N in the arctic circle. During test flights, the Phantom turned 90º on its side and accelerated hard, surviving a crash but breaking propellers on the way. S800 testing seemed to fare better, so John put it about 10 meters up for sunset pictures of the camp. The S800 did the same thing, turning on its side and taking off at high speed. He found it in a crater on a narrow gravel bar between a shallow tributary and the main channel of a river.

The surviving Wookong-M flight controller was put into a 700-sized hexacopter, which crashed two hours into flying. This one Jon thinks was due to either an ESC or motor failure, and the hexacopter did larger and larger (and more aggressive) loops as Jon tried to bring it down safely. Eventually, it looped out of site and crashed into a lake, sinking to the bottom.

Now, Jon flies a Tarot 690 folding hexacopter with XAircraft’s SuperX flight controller. “It’s pretty cool. At some point, this will translate into different photos and recognition. Now, I’m having fun doing it!”

6. James Wiseman is a deep water engineer (and underwater photographer) who sometimes works on oil platforms. James didn’t actually crash any quadcopters, but witnessed some folks from a video production company crash a fully-decked out DJI S800 (camera and FPV) and a Phantom into the ocean while doing a demonstration for the oil company. The S800 lost a motor during flight, and the pilot couldn’t direct the aircraft back to the boat. The Phantom was lost due to bad battery management (they let inexperienced people on the boat fly it).

7. Darren Rice runs Matafonua Lodge a remote resort in Tonga, and was having great fun taking aerial shots of the incredible Tongan seascape using a DJI Phantom and GoPro. Unfortunately, Darren said that one day, his Phantom flew away, never to be seen again. It is hard to get a new Phantom in Tonga, so I brought him one when I was there a few months ago. I wasn’t able to interview Darren for this piece because cyclone Ian has taken out so much infrastructure on his little island. I hope Darren and his family recover, and are able to use the quadcopter to take aerial images that help in the rebuilding process.

8. I tried to get in touch with Vincent Laforet because he posted on Instagram that his DJI Phantom had a “‘severe “incident’ with a salt beverage in Dubai Palm” (Vincent and friends are currently in Dubai for TimeFest). Unfortunately, the next day, Vincent’s dune buggy flipped over in the Dubai desert, which resulted in a massive fracture in his right arm (!). He is apparently in good spirits and is starting the long process of recovery. Best of luck, Vincent! Sorry you lost your Phantom…

9. I don’t know Chase Jarvis personally, but his DJI Phantom crash video in Iceland is totally classic. For some reason, he starts the video by eating a sandwich. Then, he precariously hangs a Sony RX100 II onto the quadcopter (note: shaky attachments can lead to vibrations, which in turn can lead to erratic flight) and then turns on the camera’s Wi-Fi, which runs at 2.4 Ghz (note: the Phantom’s control signal is also on 2.4 Ghz). Not surprisingly, the Phantom and RX100 II ends up falling into the ocean with a big splash. I laugh uncontrollably every single time I watch Chase’s video. But seriously, it’s great that Chase put the video out there. He notes, “For every success, there is sometimes a bunch of failure built in, especially when you’re experimenting and you’re trying to make something not designed to do that work, do that work.”

YouTube player

10. Eric Cheng (that’s me!). A week before Keri Wilk lost one of his Phantoms in Isla Mujeres, I lost mine. It was a full, custom rig, including a brushless gimbal, GoPro HERO3 Black, and FPV transmitter. At that time, a setup like that was worth well over $2,000. Isla Mujeres’s south point ends in a beautiful, jagged tip. I went out there with a friend and launched the quadcopter out over the ocean, flying FPV via a monitor. What I was seeing on the screen was absolutely gorgeous, and I knew I had nailed the shot. Shortly after I turned around and started to head back in, the quadcopter suddenly fell out of the sky. There was no warning—it just dropped straight down. I assume that I lost a motor or propeller, and current quadcopters have no chance of recovering from something like that. The full rig splashed down into the ocean, and all I was left with was static. Luckily, I had both a witness and a final picture of the quadcopter in flight, which was enough for my photography insurance to agree to cover the loss.

Last known photo of the author’s full DJI Phantom aerial imaging rig (photo: Adam Hanlon).


More than half of the multicoptors in this article were lost due to inexperience or user error. A few of the notorious “fly-aways” could also have been caused by user error. Between 1-3 of the losses could have been caused by bird strikes, and a couple might have been caused by actual hardware failure (e.g., ESCs, motors, props, battery connectors). Nearly all of the cases resulted in total loss of the multicopter, and although some folks tried really hard to resurrect saturated hardware, it is my opinion that electronics that have been dunked into salt water can never again be trusted.

Was all of this worth it? Well, everyone here still seems to be in the game, which is a sign that losing an aircraft or four isn’t enough of a deterrent to cause people to give up. Clearly, there is something amazing about aerial perspectives of the ocean.

Personally, that fateful trip to Isla Mujeres resulted in many minutes of unique footage: aerial footage of hundreds of whale sharks feeding on the surface at once, and footage of a single whale shark feeding in a behavior we call a “botella” (“bottle,” in Spanish). During a botella, a whale shark floats vertically in the water with its head at the surface and tail straight below, opening and closing its mouth repeatedly to suck in huge amounts of water and plankton. The behavior is rarely seen, and is even more rarely captured from the air. I’m saving the video footage for something special, but here is a still frame:

Whale shark (Rhincodon typus) doing a “botella” feeding maneuver, Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

Staying Dry

Is there a way to avoid all of this? Nothing is more important than experience with your multicopter. When something bad happens, you need to be able to pilot your aircraft on instinct, and that isn’t going to happen unless you have plenty of stick time under your fingers.

Is there a way to prevent catastrophic loss of a multicopter in the event of a water landing? The QuadH2o that Jeffrey Hartog is now using looks promising. The frame is hollow and buoyant, and all of the electronics are completely sealed inside. Heat sinks used for cooling. Motors can still become salt encrusted, but they are certainly be easier to replace than an entire aircraft. Gimbals, however, might pose a problem. You can mount a housed GoPro onto a gimbal and design the gimbal so that its electronics are all sealed, but the gimbal would have to be larger, and the whole assembly would be quite heavier. Luckily, this places the problem firmly in maker territory. Is anyone up for the task?

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Eric Cheng

Eric Cheng is an award-winning underwater photographer, aerial imager, and publisher. He is the publisher of Wetpixel.com. He is an accomplished underwater photographer and writes about aerial imaging at http://skypixel.org.His underwater images have won contests such as the prestigious Nature's Best Magazine photo competition, which has placed some of his work in the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. Eric's photography has been seen in over a hundred magazines and books worldwide.

View more articles by Eric Cheng


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