Like most days that end in tragedy, I woke up filled with anticipation. The weather forecast was excellent: 80 degrees, sunny, and very little wind — a rarity for the unpredictable Dutch coast, especially for a Sunday. Perfect conditions for my friend, a gregarious Frenchman, to bring his new Mavic Pro drone to the beach.
The first gin and tonic was served at noon.
My friend, let's call him Clouseau, had flown his drone just a few times prior because it's illegal to fly drones in the city center of Amsterdam where he lives. This would be his second visit to the unrestricted airspace of the coastline.
I had mixed emotions about him bringing the drone to the beach where I own what amounts to a glorified shipping container stuffed with mattresses and a fridge. Clouseau was a nuisance to my neighbors on his first visit. Often he'd leave the drone and its 4K video camera noisily hovering over the heads of scantily clad adults and sand-baked children. He’d do this for minutes at a time as he acquainted himself with the controller. Clouseau had absolute trust in the drone's ability to stay safely aloft while he learned to pilot the craft, literally, on the fly.
An infallible sense of security
If you've ever flown a modern-day drone then it's easy to understand his confidence. The jump in intelligence from those Christmas-morning quadcopters to what DJI now produces is staggering in its progress. The way the diminutive Mavic Pro hovers in the air, glued to a spot in three dimensions as if tethered by invisible guylines is stupefying to a novice. The Mavic Pro’s impressively long list of autonomous skills are enough to give anyone an infallible sense of security.
The day went by without incident. Clouseau heeded my request to fly high and far, and as a result, my neighbors this time greeted us with curiosity instead of annoyance. By sunset we were alone: me, Clouseau, his Mavic Pro, and a dozen or so empty soldiers of tonic.
Ten minutes later the $999 drone would die in the sea, still three miles from shore.
Clouseau knew that the Mavic Pro's maximum range was seven kilometers. But he had become so dazzled by the Mavic Pro's ability to avoid all matters of trouble that he decided to explore the wind farm, barely visible on the horizon. And despite my pleading, and numerous warnings from the controller itself, he sent the drone past the point of no return — convinced that it would override his control and return automatically if there was any real risk. It was too late by the time he turned around.
Heading back fast yet still five kilometers from shore, Clouseau received a final warning that the battery was critically low and that the drone would make an emergency landing.
The Mavic Pro had flatlined, yet the controller continued to send out a signal to come home. We listened to that goddamn bleeping for a nauseating 10 minutes while Clouseau hoped against hope that his expensive drone would somehow return. It never did, lost to the unforgiving North Sea forever.
It was then that I understood those stories of people driving off cliffs while blithely following the instructions of their GPS navigators. I'm also reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's adage that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
I watched an intelligent man do something incredibly moronic after becoming awestruck by an advanced technology. He was drunk; impaired by the gin but intoxicated by a magic he didn't understand, yet trusted beyond reason.
It’s a fatal elixir of blind faith in technology that will only become more potent, I fear, with the advances still to come.