NTSB Investigating Drone Pilot Injury


The NTSB says the pilot of a DJI Matrice drone suffered a serious hand injury after tangling with the uncooperative aircraft near Young Harris, Georgia, on May 6. According to a preliminary report (search CEN21LA224), the pilot was demonstrating the drone to a prospective customer but the aircraft wouldn’t respond correctly to control inputs. He hit the “return to home” feature and the drone settled into a hover at about seven feet above a vehicle in the parking lot where the demonstration took place. When the drone refused to budge and ignored a command to land, the pilot gave his customer the remote and tried to move the drone manually by grabbing the landing gear. The drone resisted and headed back to its holding position. When he tried to take the batteries out of the still-hovering drone he was hit by one of the propellers and suffered tendon and nerve damage in one hand. It wasn’t until he discussed the incident with an NTSB investigator that he learned what had caused the drone’s obstinance.

For whatever reason, the pilot chose the parking lot of the Towns County Jail for the flight demonstration. The drone’s geo fencing software marks all jails, prisons and other high-security facilities, like power plants and military installations, as “restricted zones” that the drone will not enter. In the photo above, the prison restricted zone is shaded in red and the yellow circle shows where the injury took place, which is in the parking lot that is adjacent to but not in the restricted zone. The pilot told the NTSB he was unaware of the zone and said he didn’t see the warnings the drone sent as it got near the jail. After his hand was injured, the pilot simply held on to the drone until the batteries were drained. The drone and the remote are being examined by the NTSB.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. Something doesn’t sound right here. If the drone was initially started up inside the restricted zone in its database, I would think it would simply refuse to take off in the beginning. The fact that it took off but then refused to land and shut down tells me someone screwed up in the programming.

    • I suspect it’s because the GPS positioning wasn’t perfect and it initially thought it was outside of the zone but then thought it was inside it. That would still seem to be a programming issue if it won’t let the drone land, though.

  2. Since when did the NTSB get the authority to investigate drones? They don’t even investigate every GA accident.

  3. > For whatever reason, the pilot chose the parking lot of the Towns County Jail for the flight demonstration.

    I’ve heard of sellers choosing police station locations when selling things to people they don’t know.

  4. An initial Google search shows this as a serious professional drone. With drone operators coming under faa regulations on drone use, my presumption is that drone operators are required to know their drone operations and faa regulations governing drone use. As a former radio control modeler and faa licensed ppl, I read all info pertaining to rc modelers responsibility of their model a/c and rules flying in model aircraft fields covered by AMA insurance, no different from responsibilities as a pilot in full size a/c required to know faa regs, airport operations whether towered or non towered, weather, etc. This appears to me as the drone operator wasn’t fully familiar with drone operations and faa guidelines relative to geo storm fencing rules. I’ve been away from rc modeling and flying but still try to stay informed of changes.

    • You nailed it, “drone operator”. If you pass a check ride you’re a pilot.
      Written exam and a leaflet FOM… operator!

    • “ This appears to me as the drone operator wasn’t fully familiar with drone operations and faa guidelines relative to geo storm fencing rules.”

      What operations, guidelines and rules were the pilot unaware of?

      Seems that the pilot was not operating the drone inside a geofenced area (if he were, he’d be inside the jail).

      This is an injury/incident due to all the “safeguards” in place in the name of “safety and security”.

      Further still:

      “ For whatever reason, the pilot chose the parking lot of the Towns County Jail for the flight demonstration.”

      For whatever reason: the pilot was operating within legal limits and safeguards(he was outside a geofences area). This comment reminds me of the hoopla of a few years back surrounding a glider pilot having the audacity to legally and safely fly his glider over a power plant.

  5. Young Harris is way out in the middle of no where, so finding a place to fly a drone isn’t hard.
    He likely wanted to be at a location where he couldn’t be robbed when selling it.
    The maps for checking if it is ok to fly are pretty large scale and these tiny restriction zones do not stand out. It looks clear in the parking lot. Not clear over the building. Most of the federal and state prisons are well marked with a easy to see red circle. This place was not.
    Every little police station has holding sells. Are they marked the same way?
    I wouldn’t have known.

  6. Almost humous. Didn’t get that sale.

    In hindsight, a case of not pausing to think more broadly – try landing further away (though potential buyer might grab it and run), likely not aware of the avoid-prison feature.

    And ‘indeed’ I say – why that location?

  7. So basicly, trying to corral the drone was equivelent to trying to put a cat in a carrier to go to the vet.

  8. NTSB says the drone system’s logs show two warnings were given, apparently operator missed them.


    https://www.suasnews.com/2016/01/41025/ geo-fencing
    Ayup, sum peeps been hackin em: https://www.suasnews.com/2017/08/dji-issues-firmware-update-response-reports-unauthorized-parameter-modification/
    With an aid to identifying drones, though enemies of Israel and US are reported to avoid such: https://www.dronedubai.ae/product/dji-aeroscope-portable-unit/

    Apparently the batteries are hot-swappable. Flight duration of the 300RTK model is 55 minutes.

    One thing to note in general is blockage of GPS signals by rocks, concrete, and dense foliage – good idea to know such. Depends on quality of GPS receiver and on antenna system (do drone’s rotors interfere? they appear to be under the motors on that model), RTH function may help. There is an accuracy improvement version it seems, for at least some Matrice models, ‘RTK’ is a surveying term for GPS use. Plus inertial and compass sensors.