Many don’t realize that a great deal goes into flying a drone, not just turning it on and simply flying it. This goes for leisurely hobby flights or paid industry jobs. If one wants to fly safely and have their expensive business investment or hobby return safely each time, there are quite a few things to check your drone for before a flight.
The things you would want to check before and even after your flight would be:
- Preflight – Homebase
- Windspeed and Direction
- Precipitation, Temperature
- Flight Permissions
- Battery related
- Firmware updates
- Props and Airframe Condition
- Preflight – Onsite
- Obstacle observance
- Physical Signs
- Satellite & GPS related
- Map positioning
- Return to Home (RTH)
- Postflight – Homebase
- Battery and airframe related
Why is having checklists important when flying drones? The short answer is that many factors can play a part in drones malfunctioning or crashing. Having a comprehensive checklist or group of procedures in place prior to and after each flight is essential for the health of the drone and the safety of those around it.
Below is a comprehensive, in-depth look at the highlight points of a usable flight checklist, seen above.
Pre-flight checklist while at Homebase
When we talk about Homebase, we are simply referring to where our drones are stored, preflight. This might be in our homes, workshop in the garage, or at the office where we run our photography/videography business from. The following are things that should be checked or added to a checklist, prior to leaving for a flight.
If there were only two important things to focus on when flying a drone, checking the flight conditions would be one of them.
For a drone to fly safely, it needs to be flown when conditions are best for flying. It is the operator’s responsibility to determine when this is or during what set of conditions. There are quite a few apps specifically made for drones, that have all the important information available at a glance, pertaining to:
- Windspeed and Direction
Knowing the wind speed and direction is essential to flying safely and minimizing the chance for your drone to crash or get lost. For many drones, due to their small size and weight, the suggested maximum wind speed to fly in would be between 18 and 23 MPH.
This is because wind speeds higher than this can and have taken drones off-course, regardless of the operator’s stick input, causing them to land in bodies of water, wooded areas, or worse yet, crash into someone’s property.
Some of the larger prosumer and commercial drones have higher tolerances for wind and may fly safely at wind speeds higher than the ones mentioned here. It is advisable to check your manufacturer’s operating manual to determine optimal windspeed for your drone.
Precipitation is a very important consideration, as most drones are not weatherproof or equipped to fly in the rain or snow, for long periods of time, thus damaging them. Making it a practice to check the weather for the area you’ll be flying in advance will minimize the possibility of being surprised in the field by a rainstorm or even snow. If you check the weather and see it’ll indeed be bad, it might even save you a wasted trip.
If you are thinking of regularly flying during inclement weather, there are a few companies that offer aftermarket solutions, that can be applied to your drone, to enable it to fly in inclement weather and even land on water!
Temperature is an important aspect that we might tend to forget about. When we talk about temperature, we are talking about the temperature extremes that can damage the drone’s batteries and cause possible failure or long-term power depletion.
If you live in an area that is prone to winter weather and snow, the temperature concerns would be freezing weather with temperatures below the manufacturer’s suggested operating temperature. For many DJI drones, the suggested minimum operating temperature should be around 32°F, and no lower than 14°F, as the battery capacity will begin to degrade when used below 14°F.
If you tend to fly where the weather is hot, like here in Central Florida where I am located, you will want to ensure that you fly in temperatures under 104°F.
Visibility is another one of those important factors that need to be considered when planning a flight. In the United States, per the FAA, the minimum visibility in miles for a drone to safely operate is 3 miles, although the operator should have a visual line of sight (VLOS) of the drone at all times.
This one is very important for anyone flying a drone. Sure, you might feel that since you’ve spent hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on a drone, you should be able to fly it wherever and whenever you want. In theory, this might sound acceptable, however, in practice, that is a different story.
Because of drones’ ability to fly in manned airspace, the FAA has laws in place to keep unmanned vehicles (see DRONES) out of the way of manned and commercial air traffic.
Generally, your drone manufacturer’s flight app (for example the DJI Fly app) will give you an onscreen idea of where it is safe and legal to fly, via the in-app map – highlighting the various commercial airspace, helicopter landing pads, and State and National Parks, as well as temporary flight restrictions (TFR’s).
This comes in handy when you are already in the field on-site. When you are still at Homebase, you can also look this information up when in-app, such as in the FAA’s B4UFLY Mobile App (link) and other popular options.
Battery and firmware related
Prior to leaving Homebase, it is advisable to ensure that ALL battery levels are at 100% before arriving at your flight location. These would be:
- Drone Batteries
- Remote Control Batteries
- Electronic device (phone or tablet) charged status
In this category of Battery Related, you would also want to make sure that your battery is on the same firmware your drone is on. Many times, if the batteries are on different firmware, the drone’s flight app will alert you with a persistent “inconsistent firmware” message and might leave you unable to take off.
It is suggested that you turn on your drone, remote control, and flight app and check for Firmware updates and perform all updates while still at Homebase.
There are quite a few instances of drone operators getting out in the field, with no Wi-Fi or Cellular signal, and not being able to take off because of a critical firmware update that was not done prior.
Check the props and drone airframe
This is one area that even seasoned drone operators might forget to do on occasion. Think of props (propellers) like the tires on your car. Those four tires are the vehicle’s only contact with the road. If the tires are worn or damaged, you might suffer a crash.
This is the same with the drone’s props. They are pretty much the contact between your drone and the air. And just like damaged tires, if your props are damaged, there can be catastrophic failure resulting in a crash or lost drone.
When examining your props, beware of any cracks or chips. If the props are cracked, be sure to dispose of them immediately. If they have small dings or chips, although they might be airworthy for the foreseeable future, it is likewise suggested they be replaced as soon as possible. It is always better to discard a pair of easily replaceable propellers than to replace or fix an expensive drone OR someone’s property, should the drone crash into it.
Checking the frame of the drone is equally important. Older drones, like the DJI Phantom line, were susceptible to cracks around the motor housing and near the legs. Over time these cracks can spread, causing the drone to fly less than optimally, eventually failing.
Since many of the newer, foldable drones have significantly more moving frame parts than the likes of the Phantom line, it is advisable to unfold each leg and inspect for cracks and/or overly stiff moving legs caused by the joints being obstructed by dirt and debris.
If you are planning on taking photos or videos, confirm that you have an SD card in the designated SD slot. This sounds like another no-brainer, however, at times, it can be easy to overlook that SD card that recently was taken out of the drone and plugged into a computer.
A simple insurance measure would be to keep multiple SD cards in your drone’s carrying case. This way even if you forgot and left the regular card in the computer, you’ll still have a backup available when you’re onsite.
Pre-flight checklist while onsite
Now that the necessary Homebase preparations have been made, it is time to look at our onsite checklist. The following should be done prior to setting up and launching your drone.
Scan the immediate area for obstacles
Obstacles that prove dangerous to your drone may most likely be scattered around the location you are looking to fly. An example of some of these to be aware of and specifically look for would be:
- Tall and low-lying trees
- Trees with bare branches
- Telephone poles and power lines
- Groupings or flocks of birds in and around the area
- Predator birds such as Hawks, Eagles, and Ospreys
- Take note of any manned aircraft in the area, as your location may be a regularly traveled route for helicopters and small planes
Scan the immediate area for printed signs
Scanning for printed signs is also a good practice, as you may find it illegal or frowned upon to launch from certain areas in your vicinity. Some of the signs to look out for, but not limited to, are:
- No Trespassing
- Private Property
- Drone – No-Fly/No Launch Zones
- Animal Sanctuary
A good rule of thumb when deciding where to launch from or fly is: Although you can fly from area X, should you? Being aware of your surroundings and the public therein is key to successful and uneventful flight sessions.
Of course, there are times when you are shooting for a paid job and need to just get in and out, regardless of who is around. Discretion may be needed in these scenarios, as well as following local laws and regulations.
The drone itself
- Unfold the drone arms (if using a foldable drone), being careful to follow the manufacturer’s procedures for doing so
- Attach all props – be sure to install the correct props on the corresponding, colored motors. Most propellers have a color or pattern on them that matches the same color or pattern on the motor. If the props are not put on the correct motors, the drone will not lift off correctly. If it does manage to launch, it will likely crash or fail shortly thereafter.
- If you have a foldable drone with folding props, like the DJI Mavic and Air series, be sure to unfold/open the props before take-off. Although it might be easier to leave them folded and let the inertia of the motors open them, this many times puts undue stress on the airframe, which can lead to cracks and failure over time
- Remove the camera gimbal cover. Leaving the gimbal cover on and powering up the drone causes the 3-axis motors to try to move and calibrate while locked in a stationary position, eventually causing gimbal overload errors and subsequent damage and failure.
In the flight app
The next list is what to confirm, look for, and set within your drone’s flite app (DJI Fly, Autel Explorer, Parrot FreeFlight, etc.)
- Confirm that there are, at the very least, 11 visible satellites
- Verify the drone’s position on the map
- Verify the remote’s position on the map
- Verify that the home point has been recorded/updated
- Set the Return to Home (RTH) height to be higher than the highest observed obstacle in the area. Doing so will ensure you miss any buildings or structures, should the RTH be initiated, while staying low enough to keep the drone within VLOS (Visual Line of Sight)
- Note any marked airspace, helicopter landing pads, enhanced or no fly zones
Post-flight checklist back at Homebase
Once back at home, there are just a few suggested things to check, so this list will be relatively short.
- Check the batteries for cracks, swelling, or other signs of damage. If there are any, properly dispose of the batteries immediately.
- If you will be using the drone within the upcoming week or so, charge the batteries to 100%.
- If storing the drone for a few weeks or an extended amount of time, charge the batteries to 60% for safe storage, if they are below 60%.
- Charge the remote control to 100%.
- Check the drone airframe for cracks. If any are found, proceed to get those repaired prior to your next flight.
This was just a short checklist of many of the major things one would want to check prior to a flight. If you are looking for “cheat-sheet” lists to carry with you in your drone case or bag, you can print out this one. Hopefully, this checklist will prove to be useful for you and your flights to come.