Learning how to fly a drone can be intimidating for people just getting into the hobby. Some might even be deterred from joining the drone community altogether when they consider the learning curve that flying an unmanned aircraft entails. And putting a flying camera into the air that costs hundreds, even thousands of dollars — what could go wrong?
If this feels familiar, don’t worry. This article will teach you the fundamentals of drone flight to equip you with the knowledge you need to fly your drone safely and with confidence.
What you will learn in this article:
Before you take your drone to the skies, there are a few important things you need to do.
If you live in the United States, go online to register your aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). If you plan on using your drone for recreational purposes only, select that option. If you want to use this hobby to earn money, you’ll have to follow a different process that isn’t covered here.
If you live in a different country, follow your local laws regarding drone registration.
The FAA drone registration fee is $5. After registering, you’ll receive a Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Certificate of Registration with your registration number. Print it out, and carry it with you any time you fly. This is proof that you’ve registered your aircraft with the FAA.
You’ll also need to write your registration number somewhere on the outside of the aircraft. I recommend writing it on a piece of masking tape and sticking it on the aircraft’s battery.
Most importantly, make sure you read and understand the FAA’s drone rules before you start flying.
Depending on your area, there might be additional drone flight restrictions. Make sure you read up on the local laws to ensure you fly responsibly.
There are a few FAA flight rules to consider when selecting a location to fly your drone. Never fly over groups of people, public events, or stadiums full of people. It’s also important to make sure that your flight location will allow you to physically see your drone throughout the flight. (source)
As a drone pilot, you should also be aware that there are different classes of airspace that determine where you can and can’t legally fly your aircraft. These different airspace classes are just chunks of airspace of varying size that surround airports. The purpose of these restrictions is to ensure that manned aircraft can take off and land safely without interference from unmanned aircraft.
Photo from FAA
Rather than trying to memorize the specific restrictions in each class of airspace, I recommend downloading the app called AirMap which shows the different classes of airspace around your location. It also lets you input your flight details, and it’ll alert you of any flight restrictions in your operating area to help make sure you’re flying in compliance with airspace rules in the area.
Another helpful tool for drone pilots is Flightradar24. This radar shows air traffic in real time all around the world. I recommend using this resource as an added precaution when flying. This radar will not show military aircraft, so be extra cautious if you fly anywhere close to a military installation.
As a beginner, finding a good place to practice flying your drone is very important. I recommend going to a big, flat area with no tall grass or anything that might interfere with operation. A sports field or something similar is a great choice.
Try to find a spot where you can be by yourself. This will mitigate potential risk and ensure that you’re comfortable and relaxed without any pressure from onlookers.
I recommend that all drone pilots use a pre-flight checklist before every flight to ensure the aircraft will operate correctly. There are several checklists available online, but I’ll outline a basic checklist here:
- Check the weather in the area you will be flying, namely the wind speed, visibility, temperature, and precipitation. UAV Forecast is an excellent tool to use for this. Reference your drone’s owner’s manual to determine the maximum wind speed it can operate in.
- Make sure the battery, controller, and mobile device are fully charged.
- If the gimbal has a cover, remove it.
- Make sure the propellers are properly attached and check for scratches, scuffs, or other damage that might affect its ability to fly.
- Connect your smartphone or tablet to the controller.
- Make sure the aircraft is on a flat, level surface.
- Power on the aircraft.
- Power on the remote controller.
- Launch the application that your respective aircraft uses.
I recommend making a hard copy of your pre-flight checklist to put in your drone kit to remind you to do these checks before each flight.
The various features of a drone’s controller can be overwhelming for new pilots, but I’ll simplify each part of the controller to make sure you approach your first flight with confidence.
Most consumer drones have different controller modes to choose from. Don’t worry about that too much yet, as each mode is just a different combination of the following principles.
The left stick controls the aircraft’s vertical movements (up and down) as well as its heading, or the direction it’s facing. Pushing up on the left stick will make the aircraft climb, and pushing down will make the aircraft descend.
The rate at which the drone ascends and descends will depend on that particular model’s capabilities along with environmental factors like wind. Just remember, drones can go up much faster than they can come down.
Pushing left or right on the left stick will make the drone’s nose turn in that respective direction. In the aviation community, this movement is known as “yaw.” Some consumer drones actually have the option to change the yaw sensitivity, so you can adjust this setting to suit your preferences.
The right stick controls the aircraft’s horizontal movement. This control makes the drone go forward, backward, and side-to-side. Simply put, this stick controls which direction the drone flies. Using this control, the drone technically has an infinite range of horizontal motion. One of the unique things about quadcopters is that they don’t have to face the direction they’re flying in.
The direction your drone is facing can be easily confused due to their symmetrical shape, and it can become even more disorienting at higher altitudes or when the drone is farther away.
To remedy this issue, most drones are equipped with indicator lights. Red lights are typically located on the front arms of the aircraft. This helps ensure that you don’t inadvertently fly in the opposite direction that you want to go. Be sure to familiarize yourself with your particular drone’s indicator lights before you fly.
The camera on drones that have a gimbal can be controlled using the scroll wheel, which is usually located close to the controller’s antennas. This feature allows you to point the gimbal up and down. On most camera drones, the camera tilt speed can also be adjusted, giving you a higher level of creative freedom as the pilot-videographer.
Some advanced drones have more than one scroll wheel. These extra wheels are just used to control different camera settings.
Now that you’ve registered your drone, become familiar with the FAA’s rules, picked a suitable location, reviewed the controls, and completed your pre-flight checklist, you’re ready to take your first flight. I recommend that your first flight just be geared toward becoming familiar with your drone. Don’t push the envelope or go outside your comfort zone.
Before every takeoff, I recommend setting the aircraft’s home point and Return to Home altitude once it has acquired a GPS signal. This is somewhere in the settings of the drone’s app on your mobile device. Setting the home point will allow your drone to return to you if the battery gets too low or if you just want your drone to automatically fly back to you. This feature will be discussed in more detail later.
The takeoff procedure can vary from drone to drone, but the process is generally the same. Most drones have a takeoff button located on the display and/or controller. I recommend using this feature for the first few flights while you get comfortable with the controls.
If you choose, you can take off manually. The procedure to do this is the same on most drones. Push both sticks either down and together or down and apart. This will run the motors. Once the motors are running, push straight up on the left stick until it is several feet in the air and clear of any obstacles on the ground.
Once your drone is airborne, slowly manipulate each control independently to get a feel for the way your aircraft handles. Keep it within 100 feet of you during this flight so you can visually observe how it responds to different control inputs.
When it comes time to land, make sure the landing surface is flat and free of any obstructions. Most drones can land with the push of a button on the controller or on the mobile device. I recommend using this feature for your first landing. When prompted, the aircraft will land and shut the motors off on its own.
If you choose, you can also land your drone manually. To do this, just bring the aircraft down until it is a few feet off the ground. It might suddenly stop a few feet off the ground as if it hit an invisible floor. Just keep pushing the left stick down, and the aircraft will initiate its landing sequence and shut the motors off once it lands successfully.
The drone hobby will likely lead you into different environments that each require unique considerations. I will discuss some of these different situations and the things you should keep in mind to make sure you operate safely and that your aircraft survives to fly another day.
While I don’t recommend flying your drone in tight, indoor spaces, you might find yourself operating in an indoor environment. When flying inside, the likelihood of injury or crashing increases substantially, but there are a few things you can do to prevent this from happening.
First and foremost, increase your situational awareness to account for potential hazards. If you’re flying inside a home, furniture and walls will practically be asking to knock your drone out of the air. As an added precaution, you might consider picking up some prop guards. While they don’t make the aircraft indestructible, they can prevent it from crashing if it comes in contact with obstacles like walls.
Some drones are equipped with obstacle avoidance technology. Drones with this feature can alert you when it comes within close proximity to an obstacle. This technology in some drones will stop the aircraft’s forward progress when an object gets too close, and more sophisticated drones will circumvent the obstacle and continue flying.
Flying Over Water
You might also find yourself flying your drone above or around water. Crashes on dry land can be devastating, but a crash in the water is especially unforgiving.
Whether you’re using first-person view (FPV) goggles or just looking at the FPV feed on your mobile device, perceiving depth over water is much more difficult than it is over land. This means that your drone can get dangerously close to the water without you realizing it.
To fly safely over water, I recommend always maintaining a visual line of sight with your drone and paying close attention to the height reading on the mobile device’s display. Implementing these control measures will allow you to get spectacular scenic footage while staying clear of the water below.
If your drone has downward optical flow sensors, the glare from the water’s surface can trip these sensors and make the aircraft think there is an obstacle directly below it, resulting in a temporary loss of control. To minimize the chances of this happening, I suggest flying well above the water at all times.
Flying in Cold Weather
You might also find yourself flying your drone in a colder environment. Cold temperatures can adversely affect your aircraft’s performance, but I’ll outline a few simple steps you can follow to keep your drone performing properly in these environments and get awesome winter footage.
Consumer drones primarily operate using Lithium Polymer (LiPo) batteries. These batteries are particularly sensitive to the cold and therefore require special treatment in temperatures under 32°F (0°C). In fact, these batteries perform best when they’re at least 68°F (20°C) before being used. (source)
To make sure your drone’s battery is warm enough to use, I suggest putting it somewhere close to your body (e.g. in gloves, a coat, or a pocket) for several minutes.
When the battery is warm and you’re ready to take off, be sure to let the drone hover in place for about a minute to allow the battery to finish warming up. This will prevent the battery from being damaged and it’ll allow you to make sure the aircraft is behaving normally in the air. (source)
Something else to keep in mind when flying in the cold is that your drone’s battery will drain faster than normal. Make sure to properly plan your flight path before take-off, and frequently monitor your aircraft’s battery level on your mobile device to be sure that you have enough time to land safely.
At some point, you’ll likely experience some kind of emergency scenario when flying your drone. You might lose sight of it and panic, forget its orientation, or it might get a mind of its own and try to flying away. All of these are very real situations that happen to drone pilots, but knowledge of a few emergency procedures can prevent a catastrophic accident.
Return to Home
Always update the home point prior to takeoff. If you lose sight of the aircraft and can’t figure out where it is, initiating the RTH sequence will automatically bring it back to that location.
Hitting the RTH button is also a good way to play it safe in the event that your drone is far away and you’re unsure of its orientation and heading.
If your drone is in a wooded area, initiating RTH will cause it to climb to its designated RTH altitude before it begins its return. Obstacles like trees in the area could prove fatal for your drone.
Learning how to fly a drone seems like an intimidating venture, but with the proper knowledge and a little bit of practice, anyone can become proficient and take to the skies with confidence.
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