As a drone enthusiast, I have my fair share of lost drones. It’s really painful to fly your precious drone in the air and never see it again. Especially if your drone is from a beginner’s category and does not have a GPS on board, it becomes hard to pinpoint the locations where you might have lost it. So, the question is, how to find a lost drone without a tracker or GPS position?
First of all, check your camera feed and try to pinpoint the last location available. Once you narrow down the area, start a foot search while holding your remote controller ON and ready to re-connect with the drone when in proximity. If the area is grassy, use a metal detector to aid the search party. If it’s in the woods, check out the trees too.
To be honest, there is no single straightforward way to find a lost drone without a tracker, but with a bit of luck and following the practical advice below, you might be able to see your lost drone again.
How to find a lost drone? A practical guide
First of all, promise yourself that you will get a cheap Bluetooth tracker before flying your next drone. It seems like a no-brainer, but even I have made this mistake of flying my drones without a tracker in the past. Especially if you are new, there is a higher chance that you will, at some point, see your drone drift away unresponsive to your remote controller inputs. It’s a sad sight, so get yourself a cheap Bluetooth tracker. More on preventive measures at the end of this blog post, but for now, let’s discuss ways on how to find a lost drone without a tracker.
This is your first option. As soon as you see your drone crashing down, memorize the direction and estimate how far it is from your location. Once you do that, start your old fashion foot search. If you can call a few of your buddies to help you cover more area, that will increase your chances of success several folds.
Here is a common mistake you might make – randomly searching the area running here and there. It might seem efficient, but you are relying on too much luck. Remember, it’s not your most lucky day else you wouldn’t have lost your drone in the first place (lol, kidding but seriously, stop running like a scared rabbit).
Instead, plan your search.
Open up your google maps or get a paper map and divide the area into zones that you can search and mark complete. If you have help from friends, assign search zones to each, and once a zone is thoroughly searched, mark it complete.
Start with the most likely zone based on your memory of the crash site and video feed from the drone camera if it is available on your phone. You might only tend to check the most obvious areas and leave out places that you might think unlikely, but sometimes, you will find it in the most unlikely places. So, don’t skip any area and be very thorough with your search.
Another way you can increase your chances of recovery is to keep your remote controller on. Most drones are lost when the connection between the remote controller and the drone is disrupted. When this happens, your remote controller is constantly trying to reconnect to the drone, and as soon as it is in the range again, you will start getting the telemetry data. If you are lucky and both the drone and remote controller has some battery power left, you can turn the motors on and try to fly it up or at least follow the sound of motors. If not, at least your telemetry will show how close the drone is from you.
Aerial search using another drone
Foot search is good, but if you have access to another drone or can borrow or rent one from someone, try having a bird-eye view of the area before heading out on foot. This can greatly reduce your efforts to recover your lost drone.
Fly your secondary drone up, turn on the FPV feed, and head over to the area where your drone crashed. If the lighting is good and its day time, you might see your crashed drone somewhere down there. It could be a lot easier if your drone had a contrast color to the terrain it crashed in.
However, if the area is covered with tall grass or large trees or bushes, this might be a futile exercise to find a tiny drone (only if it was as big as the airplane above). In such a case, a more traditional approach is needed.
Use a metal detector
This trick is useful if you lose your drone in a grassy field where it is difficult to see your feet in the grass. In such a case, your lost drone could be right in front of you, and you won’t see it. A cheap metal detector can come in handy at this time as your drone has a lot of metallic parts inside, including the motors.
Metal detectors have been used by hobbyists to find coins and buried treasures for decades so it’s a good idea to use it for your lost drone.
Since you have already divided your target area into search zones, start with the most likely zone, and expand your search from there. The coils on metal detectors have a range of around 2 feet so make sure to be as thorough as possible.
If you don’t have a handheld metal detector at home, you can borrow/rent one from your local hardware store or just buy a cheap one from Amazon. I personally like the TK4 Tracker from Bounty Hunters. It’s really handy and has a good range. Plus, you can find it quite cheaper on Amazon. [Check Price: TK4 Metal Detector]
Check out the trees
This one is obvious, but in a panic situation, might get ignored. Look up and see if your lost drone is stuck in tree branches. Falling from the sky in a forest or thickly planted area, chances are that the drone got stuck somewhere in the trees, and you are focusing your search on the ground.
But how to find a drone in a tree? If simply looking isn’t helpful or the trees are really tall, you can use binoculars.
If, by any luck, you find your lost drone up in the trees, don’t forget to follow precautions while getting it down. If it is very high up in the branches, it’s not a good idea to just climb the tree without fall arrest, especially if you are not a climber or haven’t climbed a tree before.
If you are wondering how to get a drone out of a tree, below is a good video I found where a few guys made an interesting “Tree Rescue System” to get anything stuck in the tree branches.
The good news is that your drone might not be completely wrecked if found stuck in tree branches. Compared to crashing down to the hard ground, the tree branches do a pretty good job in breaking the fall and absorbing the fall energy to save expensive parts from breaking apart (except for your propellers, maybe).
Ask the locals around
Ok so you searched the area including the trees and even used a metal detector but your lost drone is still not anywhere to be found. What’s next?
If it is a populated area, chances are that it glided down to one of the resident’s backyard. Just put on your sad-guy-who-just-lost-his-precious-drone face and ring a few bells and ask the residents if they have seen any crashing drone or heard any sound.
People are nicer than we give them credit for. If your lost drone has landed in anyone’s backyard, they would be happy to give it back to you (maybe with a warning). Say thank you and promise them you will be careful next time.
Lost drone posters
This tip also relies on people’s good nature. Print out a dozen posters with an actual picture of your drone and your contact information and past them around the locality where you lost your drone.
People usually feel good helping out other people in distress, so appeal to people’s emotions. Tell them how important the drone was to you. If it was a gift from your grandpa, mention how much you loved it. Anything that can invoke emotion will work.
You can also include monetary incentives if it was an expensive drone. You might want to reward someone with $100 if your drone is an expensive DJI Mavic Pro which costs more than $1000. If you are under 18, ask your parents permission first before promising someone $100 else you might get grounded with your found drone.
Post online with incentives
This is the digital alternative to “lost drone poster.” If your neighborhood has an active online community like a Facebook ground or Reddit sub, you can post there and ask people to help you reunite with your lost drone. Again, appeal to people’s emotions, and you will increase your chances of seeing your lost drone again.
File a lost drone police report
As a last resort, you can file a police report about your missing drone so that if anyone finds it and contact the local station, you might get a call from them.
If you are in the US and your drone was above 0.55 lb, it might probably be registered with the FAA and have a registration number on it. In such a case, do mention your FAA registration number with your police report else, in case of misuse by someone who finds your drone, you can get in legal trouble. It’s far fetched but no harm in doing so.
How to NOT lose your drone AGAIN?
It’s an old saying that ‘prevention is better than cure.’ It applies here perfectly. The first thing you should do when you get a new drone is to make it trackable if it ever flies away into the wilderness.
Install DJI GO 4 App
If your drone is from DJI, they have a dedicated app called DJI Go 4 which works just like the “Find My iPhone” feature from Apple.
To be able to use the app to locate your drone, it has to be connected to your controller and your smartphone. If your drone loses power or the battery is ejected during the crash, it will still save your last known location and guide you to that location using an onscreen Map.
You can also use the ESC beeping and the Smart LED flash to help you find your drone if it is hidden in thick grass or under branches or leaves.
Drone GPS/ Bluetooth Tracker
If your drone is not a high-end GPS enabled like DJI, you can still get a cheaper 3rd party GPS or Bluetooth tracker and attach them to your drone to make sure you have a location the next time you start your drone hunt.
GPS trackers are a bit bulky and expensive compared to Bluetooth ones but will give you a more accurate location in case of a missing drone. Some GPS trackers require a sim card or monthly data subscription to work over your local LTE/4G network. You can find a number of cheap options HERE on Amazon.
Similarly, you can also use Bluetooth enabled trackers that can pair up with your phone and can aid in your search of a missing drone. Compared to a GPS tracker, a Bluetooth tracker cannot provide you with GPS coordinates, but if you are in the drone’s vicinity, it will connect to your phone, and you can then trace the drone based on varying Bluetooth signals. One of my favorite Bluetooth trackers that I have personally used with drones and various other personal items is TrackR. Check it out on Amazon [TrackR Price]. Another good option is Tile but I haven’t used it personally. They both have their own dedicated iPhone/Android App.
Another cheap but effective way of finding a lost drone is to attach a discover buzzer somewhere on the frame. Discover buzzer is a small circuit that monitors your drone signal and battery level and gets activated when either is lost.
You can find a number of cheap buzzers on Amazon. For example, this one comes for just $20 and can produce an alarm sound as loud as 85dB.
Check your battery before flying
A low or dying battery is one of the major causes of crashed drones. Before every flight session, make sure to check your battery levels inside your drone App. Most batteries also have LED charge indicators on them so that you can see how much charge the battery has.
If you are flying one of those DIY drones and the battery is a normal LiPo, you can use this Drone flight time calculator to estimate how much flight time you will get in the air.
Use the RTH feature on time
During the flight, if your drone starts behaving erratically, that means the connection with the remote control is unstable and can cost you your drone. In such a case, immediately press the Return-To-Home (RTH) button on your drone. Most GPS enabled drones come with the RTH feature. Mostly it’s a hard button on your transmitter with a HOME symbol on it.
If your drone does not have an RTH feature, you will have to be extra cautious because, in case of a lost signal between the transmitter and your drone, there is no way for you to summon your drone home. In such a case, try to keep your drone in a clear line of sight.
How to find a lost drone without a tracker – Conclusion
We discussed a number of ways you can get your lost drone back, including old school methods like foot search, getting help from locals, and putting up lost drone posters. Lastly, we discussed ways on how not to lose your drone in the first place.
If you enjoyed reading this article, share a link with your drone community. Maybe someone finds his or her drone due to this. As they say, always be helpin.