Fly-Day the 13th: The Conclusion of “Fun with Drones”

This post was authored by Alex Widstrand ’17, co-instructor of the SAL’s interterm drone course “Fun with Drones”.  It originally appeared on the Drone Thinking Initiative blog on January 14th.

As this week comes to a close, we marked Friday, 1/13, as the final day of our first interterm drone course here at Smith.  We asked a lot of our eager students from Day One, but they maintained a level of enthusiasm and interest throughout the five days that made it a pleasure to teach every single one of them.

There was a palpable increase in confidence and control as we progressed from the flight simulator, to indoor gym flights, to our final flights outdoors as we wrapped up the final day at MacLeish Field Station in Whately.  Everyone was especially excited to implement a few of the flight plans, created on Thursday in an application called Drone Deploy, and see the drones in action as they flew the image-capture missions.

(L-R): Ina and Zoe are waiting with excitement (and crossed fingers) to see how well the Phantom 3 flies Ina’s mission, while Jon looks on.

With the temperature in the 30s and a brisk breeze blowing through, conditions were on the cold side for a field day. Nonetheless, everyone remained cheery and enthusiastic despite a sporadic Wi-Fi connection and unexpected sixth graders, on-site for a field trip that morning.  We took these visitors in stride, however, as an opportunity to train our awareness of bystanders and employ safe flight practices by keeping the drone far away from any uninvolved parties.

(L-R): Analy and Emma still enjoying the day, despite the cold and technical difficulties.

We split up into two groups to run missions on different areas around the field station, to maximize everyone’s chances at piloting a mission or being on stand-by with the iPad, tracking the drone.

(L-R): Susannah is piloting the drone, while Jon provides some pointers on flying. Analy, Emma, and Zoe are on backup as visual observers, waiting for their turn with the radio controller.

This drone has an affinity for trees. Hopefully she will fly another day.

Although the vast majority of flights went according to plan (pun somewhat intended), we knew something had to go off-track, it being Friday the 13th (or should we say, Fly-Day the 13th?).  Sure enough, just prior to lunch, those of us in the front field heard a crunching sound, awfully reminiscent of propellers encountering wood.  I ran to the other side of the field station to make sure everyone was okay.  On the plus side, no one was injured, which is always our primary goal; on the less-positive side, the sight I encountered was of the group staring forlornly upwards at the drone, which was lodged near the top of a 40-foot tree.  During a manual flight operation, the drone drifted a bit, some distances and directions were misjudged, and unfortunately, the drone ended up firmly stuck and well out of reach.


Depth perception is deceptive when flying drones high up in the sky. Learning how to judge distances and heights takes time, practice, and cautious flying.

Despite this close encounter with a tree, we understand that things like this do happen, and it’s all part of the learning process for flying drones.  Most importantly, no one – from our class or otherwise – was injured during this incident.  Equipment can be retrieved and replaced; people are not expendable in this way.  We hope that this can be considered a valuable lesson in that sometimes, the unexpected does happen; and while drones can be easy to fly, caution must be taken when flying in unfamiliar areas, especially around obstacles – regardless of your skills as a pilot.

Standing a good distance away from the drone during takeoff and landing is part of our checklist for safe operation.

After surveying the tree that our drone had temporarily made a home in, we broke briefly for lunch and then decided to wrap up our visit to MacLeish with some final manual flight practice and one full group “dronie” – a selfie taken using the drone’s on-board camera.  We were unable to save a high-resolution copy of the dronie since the memory card was filled up with flight footage; but we did capture the moment via a regular camera:

Group shot with the drone – smile!
(L-R): Emma, Kathleen, Zoe, Cindy, Analy, Asmita, Lizzie, Jon, Ina, Emily, Susannah, and Scott.

All in all, we had an exciting, fun, and drone-filled week.  Thanks to everyone for your attention, participation, and enthusiasm!  We had so much fun introducing you to this technology, and we can’t wait to see how you use your newfound knowledge of drones in the future.