Santa left a fancy new drone under the tree for you on Christmas day. You must have been good to deserve that! But it’s been weeks and you still haven’t so much as taken off.
You make excuses. It’s too cold…there’s nothing here worth filming…or your just too busy. But, deep down, you know the truth.
You’re worried that the first time you take to the air your $1,000+ piece of technology will, to borrow from Elon Musk, experience a “rapid and unplanned deconstruction.”
And so it sits in the box…doing nothing.
This is understandable. Modern drones are technological wonders, but also come with a myriad of settings that affect they operate. And a lack of understanding of how those settings affect flight is certainly one of the biggest causes of crashes.
So what can you do about that?
Here are a few tips to help get you up in the air and minimize the chances of any problems.
I’m assuming that your drone is a more advanced type that includes GPS positioning and uses an app that provides a live video feed. These tend to be more expensive, hence the nerves.
First, read the manual. Not the quick start guide. The manual that you have to download from the manufacturer’s website. This will be long and detailed. But it will let you know what each of the features does on the drone.
And don’t just read it. Start the drone with the propellers removed (just in case) and follow along trying things out as you go.
Return to Home Altitude
Set your Return To Home (RTH) altitude to at least 50ft above anything around you. If you have 125ft trees nearby then 175ft should be the minimum. Setting the RTH altitude too low is one of the most common mistakes leading to drones crashing into trees, buildings etc.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that the RTH feature is for emergency purposes only. But it’s best to have it ready to go just in case and I have mine set to 250′ by default.
Make sure that you find a wide open area for your first flight – not indoors. If you can, find a place that is clear in all directions for at least 200’. This will help with getting a better satellite lock, and will also give your time and room to figure things out if things start to go wrong. Ideally, this will also not be a highly populated area. As soon as you get that thing in the air you will have people coming over to talk to you and, right now, you really need to concentrate on what you are doing.
If you can, take a friend along. Having a “visual observer” is always a good idea as they can keep an eye on the drone while you are looking at the screen. Losing sight of your drone is scary! Having someone to help avoids panic, which is never a good thing.
Your first flight should be made “tail in”. That is with the back of the drone towards you. Direction control is relative to the direction the drone is facing, not relative to you. If it is “tail in” then pushing forward on the right stick will make it fly away from you, and pulling back will make it come back towards you. Get comfortable operating “tail in” before you turn (yaw) the drone.
Full Batteries Only
Never take off with a battery that is less than fully charged. Batteries that are only partially charged can give false readings to the computer, particularly under load such as climbing. This can either trigger an RTH or, in some cases, cause the drone to just shut down mid-flight. It’s rare, but it happens, particularly in colder temperatures.
The Right Place to Fly
Make sure your takeoff area is clear of obstacles and totally flat and that you are in GPS mode, not ATTI.
Wait until you have at least 10 satellites locked before taking off. Less than this and your drone might not record your home point. Should that happen an RTH will then return to an unknown location, which could be very far from where you are now.
Stay away from any large metal objects especially when calibrating your compass. If you calibrate where the compass is affected the drone will act very strangely as soon as it flies outside that zone.
Finally, there are a lot of regulations about where you can and cannot fly. The FAA pushes an app called Know Before You Fly. Personally, I find this app useless as it lists lots of places that are inactive. Instead, use something like AirMap. This will tell you if where you are planning on flying is OK and whether there are any temporary flight restrictions.
Take it Slow
Use the auto take off feature if your drone has one. If not then take off and rise to about 15ft.
Then…let it hover!
If you are using a modern drone such as one from DJI and have good satellite lock then it will just stay in place without you doing anything. This feature is super useful as, whenever you are in doubt, just take your hands off of the sticks. The drone will stop and wait for you to do something. Now you can take your time and figure out what you need to do to get back in control.
Now that you are in the air…start slow. Push forward on the right stick and see what happens. Then pull back. Then left. Then right. Do that a few times until you are comfortable. Now push up on the left stick and watch it climb. Then pull back on the left stick. Don’t use the left and right on the left stick until you are comfortable.
Do this, using small movements of the stick, until you are comfortable with how the drone will act. And don’t forget that, if in doubt, take your fingers off of the sticks and take the time to figure it out.
Never fly lower than 30% battery. And, until you are comfortable, I would always make sure you are close by when you reach 50% battery.
When you are ready to land, make sure that you have a clear, flat area under the drone. Then you can either push the landing button on the app, if you have one or simply pull back gently on the left stick to bring it slowly down. Once it is on the floor, pull all the way down and hold it for a few seconds and the drone should shut down automatically.
What if the App Crashes while I am flying?
Be aware that if you have a controller then the drone does not need the app to fly. The app adds a lot of additional features, but the remote control is what controls the drone.
If the app crashes remember that as long as you are not touching the sticks it will just hover. Take a moment to restart the app and you should be fine. If the app won’t restart then you should be OK to bring it back manually even without that.
If you are totally confused, have lost sight of it, and don’t know which way it is facing then use this technique
What if I’m still too scared?
Going out with an experienced drone pilot is always a great way to learn. If you don’t know any of those then look for local clubs, although I would not recommend an AMA field for that as they are not always drone friendly.
Another alternative is to pay for lessons with various companies like Avios Aerial Media. For an hourly fee, you will receive a lesson targeted at our skill level covering anything from simply flying to how to capture great cinematic shots for use in your videos. If you are interested in that contact us here.
Another alternative is to watch the excellent videos in the Phantom Flight School
So what are you waiting for?
You could sit there longingly looking at that technological marvel, or you could get out there and fly it.
Let’s face it. If all it does is sit in the box then it might as well be a collection of parts.
I’ll leave you with the wise words of John A. Shedd. “A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships were made for.”