Yesterday Quartz reported that a little over a dozen customers had complained on DJI forums about their new Spark drones mysteriously shutting down and falling from the sky in midflight. Today, DJI acknowledged the issue in a statement:
“DJI is aware of a small number of reports involving Spark drones that have lost power mid-flight. Flight safety and product reliability are top priorities. Our engineers are thoroughly reviewing each customer case and working to address this matter urgently. DJI products are tested for thousands of hours, and the overwhelming number of customers enjoy using our products with minimal disruption.”
The truth is, this kind of problem is typical in this industry. Every single consumer drone — whether it was made by DJI, Yuneec, GoPro, and 3D Robotics — had a few units that malfunctioned. The same goes for almost every smartphone or tablet on the market. The big difference, of course, is that when a smartphone shuts down for an unexpected reboot, it doesn’t come crashing out of the sky.
Here’s what I wrote back when GoPro recalled its Karma drone:
"People think it is so easy to build a small, autonomous drone. It's really not," says Michael Blades, a drone industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan. "DJI is a drone company. [GoPro] is a camera company. It doesn't surprise me that they are having technical problems with their first drone product, even after the delays. That's actually to be expected." This piece, published before Karma units reached the public and reports of failures hit the internet, predicted the problems to a T.
The web is littered with forum posts, Facebook rants, and YouTube videos from angry customers who bought drones from DJI, Yuneec, Parrot, and 3D Robotics over the past three years, only to have them fall out of the sky. Plenty more drones flew off at random and never returned home. "DJI has gone through the Phantom, P2, P3, and P4 as well as the Inspire (which has had it's own hiccups) to work out the kinks in stabilization of the aircraft and robustness of their subsystems," says Blades. "If [GoPro] expected to have a perfect product in Karma, they were dreaming."
The existence of a few problematic units is to be expected. The big questions are: how common is the problem and can it be solved without a hardware recall?
While there are lots of complaints about the Spark shutting down on the DJI forums, many of these postings reveal additional details that could explain the issue. One user admits he crashed his drone just before the flight where it malfunctioned. Another explains that it was 108 degrees outside when his battery conked out during a flight in Texas. A third user bought batteries from a reseller off Amazon.
DJI said in its statement that it will attempt to understand the root cause of the problem and patch it quickly. “We are looking to implement additional safeguards with a firmware update which will be issued soon. When prompted on the DJI GO 4 App, we recommend all customers to connect to the internet and update their aircraft’s firmware to ensure a safe flight when flying their Spark,” the company said.
This issue is worth keeping an eye on. If DJI can find a fix and the complaints don’t continue or grow in scale, then it will likely have little impact on the Spark. If the problems persist or it becomes apparent that a sizable percentage of Spark units are flawed, then DJI will have to take more drastic action.