This comprehensive guide to getting started in the wonderful hobby of flying drones is aimed at people like myself. Before I first flew a drone, I knew nothing about remote control cars or planes, I never played video games, and I found the whole thing a little intimidating. There were tons of terms I had never heard of and I couldn’t have pointed out the front of the drone from the back. In other words, I was starting from zero. In this guide, I am assuming that you are starting from zero as well, but that you’re interested and curious, ready to dive in, without getting too technical or bogged down with unnecessary details.
|This guide takes about 30 minutes to read (7900 words). |
In this step by step guide, I will walk you through each part of the process of getting started. The biggest surprise might be that there is a lot to do and know before you ever get off the ground.
Note that in this list, your first flight is all the way down at Step 9.
Jump to Step 9 – Go Time! First Flight
Don’t let that discourage you, as it’s super important to do it right to avoid injury either to yourself or others around you, or even damage to your drone.
Take an hour or two to go through all the first steps, and by the afternoon (or the next day at the latest!), you’ll be ready to take your first flight. Not to mention that a little bit of advanced preparation will make your first flight easier and more rewarding, and get you ready for tons of fun flying for years to come.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Step 1 – Choose Your Drone
Step 2 – Know Your Drone
Step 3 – Know Your Controller
Step 4 – Know FAA Rules & Regulations
Step 5 – Register Your Drone
Step 6 – Learn Basic Safety Guidelines
Step 7 – Get Your Drone Ready for Flight
Step 8 – Preflight Checklist
Step 9 – Go Time! First Flight
Step 10 – Learn Your Sticks
Step 11 – Prepare for Emergencies
Step 12 – Go From Beginner to Advanced
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A Quick Primer – Drones for Beginners
There are 5 main steps that you need to know to get started flying a drone quickly and successfully. I’ve listed 12 steps in this guide to make sure it is comprehensive and covers all the topics a beginner should be familiar with, but if you want a more succinct overview, I’ve summarized and combined a few of the steps here.
Have a drone in hand
It’s best to begin learning in the practical rather than the theoretical. Have a real drone in hand when you set out to follow these steps. For beginners, I recommend starting with either a toy type drone that will not set you back much if you crash it, or a low budget camera/GPS drone that will give you decent pictures and a few helpful features to make your first flights a little bit easier.
Get to know your drone and controller
The most important pre-flight step is getting acquainted with your specific drone and its features and limitations. Study the user manual to know what it can do (and what it can’t!), and learn how to adjust settings to make your first flight safer and easier.
Learn about your controller, as this will be your link to the drone when it’s up in the air. Spend some time getting familiar with the sticks and what they do, and any other buttons or functions that come on your specific controller.
Follow all safety guidelines and regulations, and register your drone
Since drones have the potential to cause harm to yourself or others, make sure you know how to operate it safely, by following the guidelines for safe flight laid down by the FAA, as well as other common-sense safety tips.
Make sure you register your drone with the FAA if it is over the weight of 0.55 lbs (250g).
Prepare your drone for flight
Straight out of the box there is a little bit of work to be done to get your drone ready for its first flight. This includes things like charging batteries, updating firmware, downloading controller apps, etc. Make sure to do these things inside where you have a good WiFi signal.
Fly your drone
When it’s time to get out to fly, follow a preflight checklist to make sure the drone is ready and you are following safe procedures. Use my flight drills to learn how to use your control sticks and direct your drone where you want it to go.
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Step 1 – Choose Your Drone
The first step in getting started with a drone is choosing the right one for you. All the theory you read about will only be so many words on the page unless you can get up in the air and put it into practice. Choosing a drone can be a daunting task, as there are so many out there to choose from, all claiming to be great for beginners.
There are really two ways of thinking when it comes to choosing your first drone. One approach is to get the cheapest toy drone out there, planning to crash numerous times without having to worry about your investment. The other approach is to get a drone that you can grow with, that will be able to do the things you eventually want to be able to do, like take cool pictures and videos. Only you can decide which type of drone is the best fit for your budget and your goals.
A toy drone is one of the really tiny ones, probably under $100. It may even be safe to fly indoors. These generally come with a separate controller without a screen, and almost no smart features or sophisticated flight aids. They usually aren’t going to come with a camera either.
Choosing a toy drone might be the best option for you if your goal for drones is to master the controls. It may also be right for you if you want to get into drone racing, or just become an expert flyer. It may seem counterintuitive to start with such a small, cheap drone, but the very fact that it doesn’t come with all the extras means that you won’t be able to rely on them at all, and just focus on mastering your flight skills.
Another reason to choose a toy drone is a question of budget. Most beginners are going to want to dabble a little bit before committing $500-$800 on a drone just to see if this drone thing is for them. A word of caution if this is your approach – the toy drones are harder to fly, so if you start out there, you might get discouraged and give up, when a slightly pricier drone with more features might be a lot more fun right off the bat.
GPS & Camera Drones
If your goal is to get right to aerial photography, and you’re not so concerned with the ins and outs of top-level flight control, the best place to start for you is probably a mid-level camera drone. The real advantage with most camera drones is that they typically also come with GPS, which makes them easy to fly and very beginner friendly. They may also come with other helpful features such as stable hovering, obstacle avoidance, and return-to-home buttons that help beginners have safe and successful flights.
Most camera drones come with a controller, and will use a downloadable controller app to use your smartphone as a screen with access to other flight functions. Many come with pre programmable flight modes to plan an automated flight. This means that you can set the flight course, launch the drone, sit back and watch as it does its thing.
A great beginner drone with an above average camera, and offering a medium level of flight aid is the DJI Mini 2.
Read More: DJI Mini 2 Review
You can check our buying guides for current prices.
Step 2 – Know Your Drone
Once you have a drone in your hands, you need to get to know it. Different manufacturers and models of drones will each be a little bit different, so spend some time with the user’s manual before you get out to fly. But regardless of whether you’ve got a toy drone or a camera drone, if it’s a quadcopter, they’ve all got these things:
- Frame – This is the X or + shaped arms and body of the quad that holds all the parts and pieces together. It could be a rigid frame including arms and landing gear that don’t move in any way, or a foldable design for convenient transport.
- Motors – These are the mechanisms that provide power to spin the propellers. Brushless motors are becoming much more standard, as they are quieter and more powerful. These may need occasional cleaning for optimal performance.
- ESC (Electronic Speed Control) – These connect the battery with the motors, sending signals to each drone motor to dictate propeller speed. This is how the drone acts out on the information received from the controller. In most drones the ESC is hidden under the shell, which may or may not be removable.
- Flight Control Board – This is the brains, or the computer of the drone, turning electrical signals from the controller into actionable information by sending signals to the ESCs. For the average beginner, you’re not going to need to do anything with this.
- Radio Receiver – This is where the drone picks up the signal sent from the remote controller. It could have an antenna, or be flush with the drone.
- Propellers – These are the spinning plastic blades attached at the end of each arm to achieve lift and direct the motion of the drone. The propellers spin at different speeds independently to move the drone in different directions. Your drone will usually come with spares, as this is the most common part of the drone to break.
- Battery – Generally removable in camera drones, though possibly not in toy drones. It may be charged in place or in a separate charger, depending on the drone model. If your drone has a removable battery, it’s a good idea to have a few spare batteries to be able to get more flight time.
- Gimbal – If you have a camera drone, there will also be a camera and gimbal. The gimbal is the mechanism that stabilizes the camera while in flight. Depending on the drone, the gimbal may also be responsive to controls to direct the camera angle.
It’s important to understand the parts of your drone first of all to understand how it works, but also to be able to do a little bit of basic troubleshooting if you run into problems. Also knowing the main components of your drone will help you do a little bit of basic, routine cleaning and maintenance.
Step 3 – Know Your Controller
The remote controller is arguably the most important part of your drone. Without it, the drone’s not going anywhere. It is also probably the most intimidating part, especially for those not comfortable with remote control vehicles or video games. But with a little bit of practice, the controls will quickly become second nature.
It’s helpful to get familiar with the anatomy of the controller before you start flying, so you can know what to expect. It can be a little confusing to make sense of on paper, so if you really want to get comfortable with the controls before flying, you may want to try out a flight simulator.
A quadcopter has 8 directions of flight: up/down, left/right, forward/backward and pivot (left and right). The controller has two sticks that allow you to control each of these directions of flight. For a standard controller configuration, the left stick controls the up and down movement (throttle) and the pivot action (yaw). The right stick controls the left/right movement (roll) and the forward/back movement (pitch).
The Left Stick controls:
- Throttle – This is the control of height, or altitude, of the drone. When you push the left stick forward, or away from you, the drone goes up. Pushing backward, or towards you, halts ascent, or starts decent.
- Yaw – This is the pivot action of the drone. Pivot means that the drone will rotate in place to face a different direction. Pushing the left button to the left will pivot the drone to the left, and pushing the left button to the right will pivot the drone to the right.
The Right Stick controls:
- Pitch – This is the forward and backward movement of the drone. Pushing the right stick forward (away from you) will move the drone forward (away from you). Pushing the right stick backward (toward you) will move the drone backward (toward you).
- Roll – This is the left and right movement of the drone. When you push the right stick to the left, the drone moves to the left while still facing forward. You can think of it as a slide or a sidestep to the left. When you push the right stick to the right, the drone “slides” to the right.
For each of these stick controls, the more you push the stick in any direction, the faster the drone will move in that direction. Letting back on the stick will slow the drone’s movement in that direction.
|Tip: If you turn the drone around to face you (yaw), the left and right and forward and back controls (i.e. the right stick) are now opposite. This is where novice drone pilots can get really mixed up. Some drones have a headless mode, which means the controls will always direct the drone in relation to you, regardless of which direction the drone is facing.|
These control sticks are standard across almost all drone remote controllers. Some will allow you to configure which stick controls which action, but most do not.
While the stick controls are generally standard across the industry, other buttons that may come on the controller will vary depending on the type and model of drone that you have. Spend some time with your user manual to learn the buttons specific to your controller. A few other features that you may see on your controller are:
- RTH (Return To Home) – if you have a GPS drone, you will probably have this button. Pushing it will send the drone back to land within a few feet of where it took off.
- Camera shutter button – if you have a camera drone, there will often be a button on the controller to snap a shot or start and stop recording a video.
- Flight modes – if your drone comes with different flight modes, there is often a button on the controller allowing you to quickly switch between modes.
- Smartphone holder – Most of the beginner level camera drones do not come with a screen on the controller, but instead rely on using a smartphone or tablet to view the camera images and control many of the flight and camera functions. The smartphone will slot into place either above or below the controller, depending on your particular controller design.
We will get into much more detail about how to download the app (if needed) for your phone and getting your drone connected to the controller in Step 7. We will discuss how to use the controls to get off the ground for your first flight in Step 9, and go through drills and practice exercises to help you master the control sticks in Step 10.
Step 4 – Know the FAA Rules & Regulations
Believe it or not, drones are considered aircraft, and as such they fall under the regulation of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA has a list of rules that must be followed in order to operate a drone for recreational purposes. If you’re getting paid in any way to fly your drone, you need a Part 107 license. For our purposes here, we’ll cover just the recreational drone rules.
- You must register your drone if it weighs over 0.55 lbs (250g). Your registration label number must be visible on the outside of your drone, and you must carry proof of registration with you when flying your drone. Read more about how to register your drone in Step 5.
- Fly your drone at or below 400 feet above ground level. This is to prevent interference with manned aircraft, which fly above that level.
- Don’t fly your drone in controlled airspace (such as near airports) without authorization from the FAA. You can use the FAA’s B4UFLY app to find out where these areas are.
- Keep out of the way of any manned aircraft. As the smaller aircraft, you must give way.
- Keep your drone in visual line of sight. This means you’ve got to have eyes on your drone at all times while flying it. The loophole here (important for drone racing) is that you can have a spotter with their eyes on your drone if your eyes are buried in your racing goggles.
- Don’t fly at night, unless your drone has lighting to let you know where it is and what way it’s facing.
- Don’t fly over a person or moving vehicle. Definitely don’t fly over crowded areas such as sporting events.
- Stay out of the way of emergency response activities. This includes accidents, firefighting, disaster relief, etc.
- Never fly while under the influence. This includes under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or some over the counter or prescription medications that might impair your ability to safely operate a drone.
- Don’t be reckless. A catch-all category for just generally being smart. Read more about safe flight tips in Step 6.
- One more rule that is coming into effect in the near future: Soon all drone operators (including recreational ones) will need to pass a knowledge and safety test before being permitted to fly a drone.
Aside from being good sense and offering some straightforward rules to keep everyone safe, the regulations from the FAA are not optional. If you’re caught breaking these rules you could end up with some pretty hefty fines, so learn the rules before you get out to fly, and review them once in a while if necessary.
Step 5 – Register Your Drone
Any drone that exceeds the all-in (battery, camera and everything else) flight weight limit of 0.55 lbs (250g) must be registered with the FAA. That means that with many toy drone models, or even with the DJI Mini 2 (read our full review) that are below this weight limit, you are off the hook on this one.
If your drone does exceed the 0.55 lbs weight limit, don’t sweat it, registering your drone is a simple task. You can register online on the FAA website in 5-10 minutes, for $5 (valid for 3 years). Note that you must be over the age of 13 to register a drone.
What you will do in the registration process:
- Create an account by entering your email (login name) and a password.
- Provide a physical and/or mailing address (if different from physical).
- Select a registration type (commercial or recreational).
- Enter the manufacturer and model information of your drone or drones (you can include more than one drone on your registration).
- Agree to the FAA Safety Guidelines (see Step 4 above).
- Pay $5 with a credit or debit card.
After you complete the registration process, you will be issued a unique ten digit number that must be clearly displayed on the outside of your drone. The easiest way to do this is with a label maker or durable tape to display the registration number.
Also keep in mind that you need to have proof of registration with you whenever you fly your drone. The easiest way to do this is to print out your registration certificate when you finish the registration process, and put it in your drone case or box so that it goes where the drone goes.
Step 6 – Learn Some Tips for Safe Flight
There’s a lot that can go wrong with a piece of plastic and metal whirling through the air with those plastic blades spinning furiously. Prevent injuries to yourself and others by keeping these safety guidelines in mind:
- Keep your fingers, hair, etc. away from spinning propellers, as they do have the potential to cause cuts. You can also use propeller guards, which may come with your drone or can be purchased separately.
- Don’t try to fly indoors unless you have a really small toy (or an even smaller nano) drone. There are lots of obstacles and things to crash into and break indoors.
- Find an open area outdoors away from obstacles such as trees, buildings, overhead wires, etc. to learn how to fly your drone.
- Choose the right conditions for flying. Don’t try to fly if it’s windy, raining, thunderstorming, too dark to see, etc. Wait until the conditions are right.
- Keep in mind that it’s typically windier the higher up you go. Keep your drone relatively low (10-20 feet) until you are more confident in your drone’s ability to handle the conditions.
- Don’t try to fly too close to the ground, as this can cause unstable flight due to propeller wash. When you first take off, go up to about seven to ten feet to get your bearings before continuing on.
- Be cautious when using the Return to Home button. Unless your drone has obstacle avoidance sensors, hitting return to home could send your drone into an obstacle if there isn’t a clear path back to the take-off point.
- Keep your drone within controller range (this is how far the drone can get away from the controller and maintain a signal). If you send your drone beyond the limit of the controller range you could have a flyaway situation, or a drone that drops out of the sky into some trees. The controller range, and how the drone will respond to loss of controller signal depends on the drone model.
- Minimize controller interference. The radio frequency that sends signals from your controller to your drone can experience radio or magnetic interference from cell phones, powerlines, large buildings or radio towers.
- Don’t hand off the controller to someone else during a flight. If a friend wants to have a go, land the drone first, and let them take off from the ground.
Read More: How Dangerous are Drones for Beginners?
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Step 7 – Get Your Drone Ready for Flight
There are a number of things that you will need to do with your drone before it is ready for take off. This is especially true if you have a GPS or camera drone with a few more advanced features. If you have a toy drone, there may not be much that you need to do to get ready to fly. For the purposes of this list, I will assume that you have a GPS camera drone with a controller that uses a flight app.
Before your first flight, I recommend planning to do all of the steps below inside where you’re more likely to have a strong wifi signal, and aren’t feeling impatient to get in the air.
- Download the Flight App onto your smartphone. This is necessary in order to perform some of the following steps. You can find the flight app specific to your drone model on the App Store or on Google Play, depending on your phone. Check your user manual to find out what app you need to download.
- Create an account. When you first open up the app, you will be prompted to create an account. Take the time to set up your account, as you will need your login information every time you do a firmware update.
- Charge up your drone and controller batteries. You will need to power up your drone and your controller in order to connect them, and you can’t do this unless the batteries are charged. The controller battery is usually not removable, and is charged in place. The drone batteries, if removable, can be charged in a charger, or can often be charged while installed as well.
- Connect your device. When you connect your smartphone to the controller and fire up the app, it will give you steps to follow to connect the drone with the controller, and how to perform updates.
- Perform firmware updates for both the drone and controller. Manufacturers continually come up with upgrades and system fixes, so it’s important to keep your system up-to-date for the best performance. Your app will take you through this process, and it may take a bit of time, so be patient. You may need to login again to verify the updates, so be sure to do this where you have a wifi signal or data connection.
- Verify system settings and status. This is the time to go through and check your settings for things such as your height limit, return to home settings, flight mode (use a beginner mode if you have one), and others. Take the time to explore the settings in the app so that you’re not fumbling through when it’s time to start flying.
- Format SD card. If you’re planning to take some pictures or videos while on your first flight (of course you are!), format your SD card and have it ready to go beforehand.
Whew! Now that your drone and controller are formatted, updated, and ready to go, you can take it outside, find an open space, and get ready for lift-off! Take the following Preflight Checklist with you.
Step 8 – Preflight Checklist
Think of this as not just a step that you need to take before your first flight, but as a handy list of things to do or have ready before every flight. You may notice there is some overlap of items from Step 7 above or from Step 9 below, as some of these items will have to be repeated every time you get out to fly. Click here for a printable version of this Preflight Checklist to keep with you for easy reference.
Mission Planning (before you head out to fly)
- Check weather forecast
- Update drone/controller firmware and app
- Select and research flight location (Google Maps/Earth, B4UFLY app, etc.)
- Charge all batteries (aircraft, controller, phone)
- Pack equipment
- Pack first aid/safety equipment
- Format SD card
Pre-Flight (immediately before flight, on-site)
- Visually inspect aircraft for damage
- Remove lens cover/gimbal clamp
- Clean camera lens
- Confirm SD card in aircraft
- Check that props are on securely
- Check batteries are correct temperature and properly fitted
- Turn on controller, then aircraft
- Set max height to 400ft
- Set home point
- Set RTH height
- Check satellite connection and strength
- Perform compass calibration, if required
- Select desired flight mode
- Verify camera settings
- Set image storage location to SD card
- Check wind speed and weather conditions
- Double check for obstacles (power lines, trees, buildings, etc.)
- Select take off and landing point
- Take note of backup landing area
Take Off (getting the drone in the air)
- Clear take-off zone
- Throttle forward to lift off or push take off button
- Hover at 7-10 feet for 15 seconds to check stability
- Check all controls are responsive
Step 9 – Go Time! First Flight
It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for, but keep your hat on! There are still a few things to do before that drone is actually off the ground.
Before you hit the throttle, you need to go through your preflight check list to make sure everything is ready to go. This includes checking over the drone for any signs of damage, removing the camera cover and gimbal clamp, making sure propellers and batteries are properly installed.
The next step is to turn on the controller and flight app, then the drone. Once you turn on the drone, check that all your settings and flight modes are set the way you want them. A few settings that I recommend for beginners:
- Set maximum height for 50 feet
- Set maximum distance for 170 feet
- Set return to home altitude to 30-40 feet, depending on the height of nearby obstacles
- Use beginner mode if your drone has one
Next follow any prompts on the flight app to get the aircraft ready to take off. This will probably include calibrating the compass, and waiting for connection with satellite signals. Depending on your drone you will probably need to have at least 6-8 satellite signals before your drone will be ready for take off.
Now it’s finally time to take off. Many GPS drones will have a take off button that will automatically launch your drone and take it to a stable hover at a height of about seven feet. This is a good option for your first flight, but if you don’t have a take off button, (and you probably don’t if you have a toy drone), the way to get your drone in the air is by pushing the throttle (left) stick forward gently until your drone gets to about seven to ten feet in the air. When you let off the throttle, the drone will hover in place.
Once you’re at a stable hover, whether by pushing the take off button or using the throttle, take a few seconds to test each control stick to make sure the drone is responding properly. Now you’re on your way!
We’ll get to some drills to practice your stick skills in the next step, but before we get there, I want to talk about how to land the drone. To land, depending on your drone, you may have several options. The first of course is to push the throttle (left stick) slowly toward you until the drone is within a foot or a few inches off the ground and then drop it the rest of the way into the grass or onto a landing pad. If you have a drone with a few more fancy features, you will probably have a land drone button. To use this, bring the drone back down to within several feet of your landing site, and push the land drone button, and it will bring itself back to the ground.
The last option, if you have a GPS drone, is to use the return to home button, which will bring the drone from wherever it is, back to its original take off location. One note on the return to home button. If you are hovering at three or four feet from where you want to land, and the return to home altitude is set at 30-40 feet, the drone will take itself up to that height before coming back down to land. It could catch you by surprise if you’re just planning to see the drone land at your feet and it takes straight up in the air again.
Step 10 – Learn Your Sticks
Now that you have your drone hovering in midair, what in the world do you do with it? Here’s where a few drills will go a long way in helping you to become comfortable with getting your drone to go where you want it to go. Automated flight features and camera shots are all well and good if your drone has them, but they do not and should not replace good old fashioned practice. You need to learn your sticks, and practice them until they become second nature.
Here are a few basic drills to master as a beginner. Don’t try any fancy flying until you can do each of these forms smoothly and without having to think too hard about it.
If you have a GPS drone, mastering the hover is a non-issue. If you have a toy drone without GPS, it may be more of a challenge to achieve a steady hover. Practice a steady hover at about seven feet by keeping your finger on the left stick, which controls throttle and yaw. If the drone tends to yaw left on its own, push the stick to the right a bit, and vice versa. If it is drifting up, pull back gently on the throttle. Just play about with it until you are getting the drone to stay in place steadily.
It’s important to master the hover, as it’s the starting point for all of the following drills. With a non-GPS drone you may need to continue playing the throttle stick to keep the drone at a steady height while working the other directions of movement.
Forward & Backward (Pitch)
With your drone at a hover, push the right stick forward to fly the drone forward several feet, then pull the stick back to center (or release) to stop the drone.
Now pull the right stick back (towards you) to fly the drone backward several feet, then push the stick back to center (or release) to stop the drone.
Repeat this forward and backward several times to get the feel of the stick responsiveness.
Left & Right (Roll)
With your drone at a hover, push the right stick to the left to fly your drone several feet to the left, then push the stick back to center (or release) to stop the drone.
Now push the right stick to the right to fly your drone several feet to the right, then push the stick back to center (or release) to stop the drone.
Repeat this left and right pattern several times.
|Tip: With a non-GPS drone you will need to adjust yaw and throttle to keep the drone facing forward, and at a steady height while you are moving forward/backward and left/right.|
Fly in a Square
With your drone at a hover and facing away from you, push the right stick forward to fly your drone forward several feet (pitch), then hover in place.
Next push the right stick to the right to fly your drone several feet to the right (roll), then hover in place.
Then pull the right stick back (towards you) to fly your drone backwards several feet, and hover in place.
Finally push the right stick to the left to roll the drone to the left and hopefully end up back where you started from, more or less.
You just flew in a square! Repeat this drill several times until you get comfortable with it.
Fly in a Circle
This one’s a bit more challenging as you will engage pitch and roll simultaneously (and throttle as well if your drone needs hovering help).
Starting again with your drone at a hover and facing away from you, decide whether you will fly clockwise or counterclockwise. For the example here I will walk you through the clockwise directions.
Push the right stick diagonally up and toward the right to fly your drone in a diagonal direction. Slowly rotate the right stick more to the right to move the drone more to the right.
Continue rotating the right stick around toward the bottom right, then bottom, and circle the stick all the way around back up, until the drone returns to its original position.
Repeat this drill as many times as you need to to get comfortable with it. Also try switching directions to fly the opposite way around.
Until now you’ve been flying with the drone facing away from you, which is the easiest way to keep track of how the roll and pitch will direct the drone. But now let’s rotate (yaw) the drone around 360 degrees.
With your drone at a hover, push the left stick to the left to rotate your drone around in a counterclockwise direction in 360 degrees back to the starting position.
Push the left stick to the right to rotate your drone around in a clockwise direction in 360 degrees back to the starting position.
Repeat these pivot movements in both directions several times to get the hang of it.
|Tip: Repeat the Forward/Backward, Left/Right, Square, and Circle drills with your drone facing a few different angles to get a feel for how the controls behave when the drone is not facing forward. Keep repeating these drills with the drone at different angles until you feel comfortable with it.|
To fly in a smooth continuous movement, start by slowly pushing the right stick forward. While your right stick is still engaged forward, move it slightly also to the left or right to see the drone roll to the left or right while in forward motion.
Continue flying forward in this way for a bit (but be sure not to get your drone too far from you so as not to get out of range of the controller), feeling how the drone responds to the controls.
You can return the drone to you by flying it back to you still facing away from you by pulling the right stick backwards, or toward you.
Or if you’re feeling brave, rotate the drone to face you, and try a continuous flight back to you, noting that pushing the right stick forward will bring the drone toward you, not away from you, and that pushing the right stick to the right will send the drone rolling to the left and vice versa.
Practice these continuous flight patterns until you feel comfortable with them. Try flying smooth continuous flights with the drone facing different angles as well.
Try this more advanced drill first with the drone facing away from you for the entire flight. Use the right stick to navigate the drone first forward and to the right as if you’re flying in a counterclockwise circle, then shift to forward and left to cross over towards the left. Let off on the forward motion while pushing the right stick back towards the right to make the far end of the figure, then pull back and to the left to cross back over, and loop around back towards the right to close the loop in front of you.
Step 11 – Prepare for Emergencies
Once you’re up and flying, you are bound to run into problems of various kinds, whether it be issues with your drone or controller, the weather, or simply your own lack of experience. It’s especially important as a novice pilot to know some of the potential problem areas and have a plan of how to respond if they come up. Here I mention some emergency situations you might face, and how to deal with them.
Loss of Controller Link
You might find that your drone all of a sudden is not responding to your controls. This might happen if you’ve flown out of range, or if there is interference on your controller radio frequency. You can prepare for this eventuality beforehand in many drones, including DJI drones, by selecting in your settings what the drone should do in this case. The options typically are: hover in place, automatically land, or return to home. If you’re a new pilot, the best setting to select is probably return to home.
If you don’t have these settings to choose from on your drone model, you may be faced with a fly away drone situation if it loses connection with the controller. You can prevent a lost drone by having a tracking device fixed to it so that if it should happen to fly away, you will be able to locate it.
If your drone loses connection with your controller, it could fly away from you, but it could fly away for other reasons as well, such as a motor or propeller failure, or a software malfunction. But there are some things you can do ahead of time to help prevent a fly away. Always make sure your firmware is up-to-date on both your drone and your controller. Check propellers for any signs of damage before flying. Check that your loss of connection link settings are set to return to home.
While you’re out flying, make sure that you keep your drone in view at all times. This will help to make sure that your drone stays in range, and if it starts to stray you will know which way it is headed. If you are faced with a flyaway situation, a tracker may be your best bet for finding where the drone finally came down.
Depending on the type of drone you have, it will have different preset responses to running out of battery. It could automatically return to home when the battery level is too low to continue, or it could land in place. A really low budget drone may just drop where it is when the juice is gone. Know what your drone will do when the battery is running low. Also, when you’re flying, keep your eye on the battery indicator, and try to keep it closer to home when you’re getting toward the red so you have time to get it down before the battery runs out.
Even if the weather is generally clear and calm when you start a flight, sudden gusts of wind can catch you off guard. If the wind has picked up and you’re having trouble keeping the drone on course, it’s best not to try to ride it out. Bring the drone back down and wait a few minutes to see if the wind will die down again before going back up. Better that than landing in a tree or on the roof.
This has happened to almost every new beginner when flying a drone. The sticks suddenly don’t seem to be doing what you want them to, you don’t know which way the drone is facing, and things are getting out of control. If this should happen, the best thing is to either hit the pause button, or if you’re really flustered, hit the return to home button.
If you don’t have a return to home feature, try getting to a steady hover for a minute or two to get reoriented before flying on, or else bring the drone down to land wherever it happens to be. Navigation lights are also helpful to keep yourself oriented, to be able to tell from the red and green or blue lights which way the drone is facing.
Step 12 – Go From Beginner to Advanced
After you’ve mastered some basic flight skills, there’s still a long way to go to get to an advanced drone pilot level. There is no substitute for hours of flight time, so get out there and enjoy it. But if you’re seriously considering taking your hobby to the next level and turning it into a career, there are some things you can do to help you get there.
Set yourself some goals of advanced skills to master and a timeline in which to check them off your list. These could be flight skills such as bank turns or flying through obstacle courses. Or they could be skills such as learning how to operate the camera on your drone, whether that’s using the automatic settings, or learning how to use the manual settings for really good photography. You could develop skills in flying with FPV (First Person View) goggles or in using software to turn photos into maps or 3D models. The specific milestones that you set for yourself will depend on what type of career you have in mind for yourself and your drone.
It can be challenging to know how to set your own milestones in developing as a drone pilot, and that’s where drone piloting courses can be extremely helpful. There may be options at your local community college, but probably much more useful, and definitely cheaper, are the many online options for courses to help you learn flight skills, drone camera skills, and more. You can check out our recommended drone pilot courses here.
You could also benefit from finding a coach, or a mentor, or even joining a drone club. There is so much to learn from others who are just a bit ahead of you on the path, and definitely from those who have become experts. Find someone else who has been flying even for just a few months or a few years, and pick their brains on skills that you need to work on.
Once you’ve logged a lot of flight hours and are on your way to becoming an advanced pilot, it may be time to think about getting a drone pilot certification. There are certificate courses that may be required by various types of industries that will test your skills and knowledge on specific things related to drone piloting. If you’re working on becoming a professional drone pilot for a mining company, for example, they will probably require a certification course that will test you on your ability to fly in enclosed spaces, and to use advanced software to manage the data you collect with your drone. Research the types of certifications that are required in the field you’re interested in, and develop your skills accordingly.
For anyone who is flying a drone for financial compensation, whether it’s as a wedding photographer or a surveyor, roof inspector, or anything else, you will need to get a drone pilot’s license through the FAA called Part 107. The Part 107 exam is an online knowledge test, and there are many courses out there that can help you know what to expect, help you study the right stuff, and pass the test. Once you’ve passed the test and are licensed as a drone pilot, the doors are wide open to you to use your drone skills to make some money in a wide array of industries, and it’s a growing market so it’s a great time to be training as a commercial drone pilot.
Here are just a few ideas of how you can make money with your drone:
- Photography/videography – this could be weddings, family events, nature photos, portraiture, photojournalism, etc. The photography scene, but from a different perspective.
- Real Estate – filming or taking photos to help market and sell homes and commercial properties.
- Inspections – many companies are looking for building and asset inspections, and drones drastically reduce time and risk to perform these inspections. For example, utility companies, solar farms, wind farms, factories, warehouses, etc.
- Infrastructure – highway departments have a massive task of keeping up with bridge and road repairs, and drones can help with inspecting bridges and mapping roadways.
- Surveying and mapping – construction companies, logging operations, and others need accurate detailed surveys and maps for project planning, and drones are the ideal tool for the job.
- Precision agriculture – Crop scouting for pests and diseases is aided by drones, as is herd management, irrigation inspection, and more. Drones have become practically synonymous with precision agriculture.
If you’re getting really good with your drone, and ready to take it commercial, it is probably also time to level up on your drone. Your very first drone is probably not going to be the one to take you into professional photography or inspections. If your first drone cost you somewhere between $100-$800 dollars, you can expect to pay $1500-$5000 dollars for the drone that is really going to take you into the big leagues.