Nearly six months ago, I was thrilled to test out DJI’s fancy new Phantom 4 drone. Our video team joined me in a park, after I’d tested the features again and again. But somehow, I forgot a key detail and smashed the $1,400 aircraft into a fence at top speed. DJI was not not amused.
That’s the crash above—it’s as bad as it looks. The Phantom 4, sadly, never flew again. However, after my review went live a few days later, I learned that others had made the same mistake as me. I’d forgotten that the obstacle avoidance system doesn’t work when the drone is flying in Sport Mode. Yes, I’d read this in the instructions, and yes, I did get caught up in the moment of watching my little white bird zoom across the sky at 45 miles-per-hour.
Here’s the one-line email my DJI contact sent me after we published the review—I’ve redacted the DJI employees’ names and email addresses:
On Mar 21, 2016, at 5:52 PM, REDACTED <REDACTED@dji.com> wrote:
Is there something you want to tell me, Adam?
There was! But it took me a little time to talk to my fellow editors and figure out the best next step. Here’s my reply:
From: Adam Clark Estes <email@example.com>
Date: Friday, March 25, 2016 at 10:55 PM
To: REDACTED <REDACTED@dji.com>
Subject: Re: Gizmodo Phantom 4 Review
Sorry for the late reply, <REDACTED>. As you surely saw, I screwed up in our testing video and slammed the Phantom into a fence. It was an accident.
That said, I love the quadcopter and plan on including it in an upcoming roundup of our best aerial photography drones. It will likely be one of our top picks. My colleague Mario is talking to DJI’s PR team next week and will see about getting this unit repaired.
Thanks again for all your help
I really did love it and wanted to test it against some other drones for an upcoming feature. DJI fired back another brief missive:
On May 4, 2016, at 22:28, REDACTED <REDACTED@dji.com> wrote:
Could you please send the Phantom 4 back to the following person at the following address? <REDACTED> will then send it on to our Carson repair facility, which will determine if it’s totaled or can be repaired and will also send along the bill.
Best & thanks,
This was the first I’d heard of a bill. Typically, if a company wants to put the financial burden of a broken gadget on the reviewer, it will ask you to sign some sort of agreement. I hadn’t signed anything, and neither had anyone at Gizmodo. So I tried to seek a productive compromise:
On May 10, 2016 at 4:19 PM, REDACTED <REDACTED@dji.com> wrote:
Apologies for the late reply. I was traveling last week. We’re glad to send the Phantom 4 back, but I was actually hoping to do a follow up from my original post. I’ve gotten emails from readers who’ve crashed their own drones and had questions about repairs. I think it would make for a great story if I repaired it myself and wrote a post about the experience.
The damage itself does not seem very severe. I think just need a new battery, some propellors, and chassis parts. The camera, motors, etc. all seem to be fine. In my Google searches, I wasn’t able to find the parts online. Is there any way you could send spares or direct me to a store where I could buy them?
All the best.
DJI’s reply to this idea actually made me a little bit hopeful that we could be friends again:
On May 9, 2016, at 10:47 PM, REDACTED <REDACTED@dji.com> wrote:
Hey, Adam. Thanks for writing. I’ve been backing-and-forthing with Mario. I’d love to have you guys look at something interesting/quirky with our technology. The thing about repairs is I have to say “no,” but let me explain. It has nothing to do with you or Gizmodo. To use an analogy, if you had a 1969 Ford Falcon, you could pretty much eyeball a cracked part and replace it, getting the car back in working order. When you roll your 2016 Lexus into a garage these days, the first thing they do (besides charging $90 an hour for labor) is connect it to a computer to run diagnostics on it. Even if you had the parts, all you could fix would be what might be cosmetically wrong with the Phantom. There’s a ton going on inside that needs to be run through multiple checks — IMUs, ESCs, barometers, vision-processing board, flight controller. Just as I hate to leave people with the impression that crashes happen — even though they do — I don’t want us to encourage folks to try to fix the P4 by themselves. They might get the cosmetic things right, but they a)void the warranty, especially if they crack it open and b)it might lead to unsafe flight. I’m really, seriously, concerned about a malfunction because of something the eye couldn’t possible see. We have a DJI repair certification course and even bring people over here to teach them and get them certified to make repairs.
I am very open to other ideas or thoughts. I read Gizmodo every day and have for a long time.
This sounded slightly off-base. Users should be able to repair their gadgets themselves, in my opinion. But I was in no position to argue and still felt eager to compromise:
On May 10, 2016, at 19:26, Adam Clark Estes <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
That makes total sense. Here’s a related idea: What if we tested DJI’s new service program? Would there be a way that we could anonymous sign up and send in the drone for service to get a realistic experience with the new program?
I’m eager to get the Phantom back and running because we have a big roundup of aerial photography drones coming up and so far, the Phantom 4 is a favorite. We still need to do some head-to-head testing with competitors like Yuneec and 3DR. And we’re obviously happy to end the unit back once that post goes live. We’re hoping to get everything done before summer officially arrives.
All of this is true. I was eager to continue testing the drone. In fact, I needed to do these head-to-head tests, if I wanted to write an accurate round up of the best aerial photography drones. After a little bit of prodding, DJI started to get ugly. Emphasis mine:
On May 25, 2016, at 12:53 PM, REDACTED <REDACTED@dji.com> wrote:
Since your last email, I delved into the world of DJI Care and our Carson repair center.
Basically, we can’t try to sneak our way into the DJI Care repair/replace queue because everything starts with a serial number. If it’s not in the registry, aftercare support won’t accept a DJI Care claim.
And in terms of repairs, after watching your video — and shuddering — one of our repair techs in Carson said that immediately qualified to be sent back to China for full diagnostics and repair. In most cases, because we have no idea whether compasses, IMUs, ESCs, barometers, PCB and other components were damaged, or to what extent, and whether they should be repaired or replaced, they’d consider that a scrub. Cost of replacing components aside, the issue is always about safety, and they don’t want to put something back in the air that isn’t 100% safe.
If you’re looking for another unit to do head-to-head testing, I’m looping in <REDACTED>, who heads up North American comms, to see what he’s got in the cupboard. We’ve been loaning out units to journalists who are testing out Facebook Live, so a lot of units have headed out. I don’t know what has come back.
And to be candid, we had some fairly negative reactions to your video at a senior level here at HQ. The good conclusions were lost on them after they saw how the crash occurred. I do not want to have to explain another scrub to them by the same reporter at the same media org. If we have something to loan out, can you double-pinkie swear that you won’t do anything outrageous or kooky or dangerous?
It was obvious to me at this point that DJI thought I intentionally destroyed the Phantom 4. This is not true. Just as I said in my intial email, it was an accident. Nevertheless, I basically begged for a repair, and DJI told me they could offer a loaner instead. A different PR rep from DJI replied with a similarly impolite tone. Emphasis mine:
On May 26, 2016 at 5:05:09 PM, REDACTED <REDACTED@dji.com> wrote:
Hi Adam — I handle DJI communications in North America for <REDACTED>, so I can take over the process of putting out a loaner from here.
I have to say, though, that I am doing this against my better judgment. I still wince at the image of you flying a brand-new P4 into a fence when we had explicitly warned against doing something like that. I’m sure you’re glad for all the hits you got. We’re not.
Send us what remains of the P4 you crashed. We will evaluate it. (Expect a bill.) We will then put you on the list to get another unit for review on a two-week loan. There is still a waiting list, in part because we have one fewer review unit than we planned.
At this point, we decided to send the Phantom 4 back and be done with it. Gizmodo’s reviews editor, a wonderful woman named Alex, arranged for the return, but the drone got caught up in the gadget shipping shuffle. Eventually, DJI sent us a shipping label and another rude note:
On July 27, 2016 at 10:22:09 PM, REDACTED <REDACTED@dji.com> wrote:
Gentlemen, here’s a shipping label for the drone that you destroyed several months ago. We have been patiently waiting for it for a while now. Would you please ship it back to us as soon as possible, so we can have our techs review it and prepare a bill.
This one sort of backfired:
On July 27, 2016 at 10:30:29 PM, Alex Cranz <email@example.com> wrote:
This will go out tomorrow morning.
Also I tend to prefer being referred to as a woman…on account of being one.
And here’s the last dispatch we may ever receive from DJI:
On July 27, 2016 at 10:36:14 PM, REDACTED <REDACTED@dji.com> wrote:
My deepest apologies.
Well, at least DJI apologized in the end. I’m sorry, too.