HOW TO FLY A DRONE: OUR BEGINNERS GUIDE TO QUADCOPTERS
Flying a drone for the first time can be intimidating to say the least. With new laws coming in to play and seemingly ever-changing goalposts it can pay to do a little homework before you take your maiden flight.
How To Fly A Drone – The Basics
Most drone manufacturers would have you believe that flying a drone is easier than riding a bike. Whilst for some drones that may be true, do you remember how hard it was when you first learned to ride a bike? If you do, then you might find that learning to fly a drone has a similar learning curve.
As you have probably guessed, we are pretty passionate about flying drones, but that doesn’t mean we don’t take our responsibilities very seriously when it comes to drone safety. Awareness is probably the key word when it comes to safe and responsible flying of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) which is why we have put together this handy guide that is originally titled ‘How To Fly A Drone’.
Whilst we might score 1/10 for originality, we think you will find the guidelines below pretty useful if you are a novice drone pilot.
Like anything, the more you do it the better you generally are in terms of skill level. This is truer for drones that anything else. If you really want to become the Maverick of the drone world then you will need to dedicate time to it. If you just want to be proficient enough not to embarrass yourself or cause harm to others then you will still need a certain amount of time to become safe. One thing to note is that even experienced pilots have the odd mishap so don’t beat yourself up if you do crash a few times. So long as you are flying in a safe place then you (and others) should be fine.
The first thing to note is that not all drones are equal. You will be aware that you can purchase drones for as little as £15-£20 and easily pay in excess of £3,000-£4,000 for a more premium model.
It’s not just the price of drones that is different but the size and weights also vary wildly. Generally speaking, the more expensive the drone the bigger and heavier it will be. Depending on where you are in the world, the regulations for flying drones will vary massively. It is always worthwhile reviewing the local laws regarding flying UAV’s whether you are an experienced pilot or not.
If you already have your quadcopter then the first thing you should do is familiarise yourself with the instructions. This may seem like very basic advice but it is very easy to get carried away and think you don’t need to read the instructions carefully. For beginners, it is less common for them to skip the instructions but our advice here is to apply this logic to every new drone you buy – no matter how experienced you are!
Learn The Lingo
Like most technological fields there will be lingo and accronyms that need to be learnt. The drone industry is no different and you will have already spotted a few on this page.
Here are a few drone terms that you should master to help you fully understand tutorials and instructions:
UAV – Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
BNF – Bind and Fly
Brushless Motors – Commonly found in quadcopters, brushless motors are considered superior to brushed motors as they are more durable and have more power
FPV – First Person View
Gimbal – A mechanism that stabilises video footage
PNP (or P&P) – Plug and Play – There is no need to set up the transmitter and drone as it should already be good to go
Throttle – Controls the amount of power that the motors output – put simply, more throttle = faster/higher
Yaw – A term used to describe the oscillation of a drone around its vertical axis
There may be other more colloquial terms used amongst drone communities or flying groups and you will pick these up as you go along. Luckily there are plenty of resources for learning more drone terms.
Indoors or Outdoors?
One of the big questions we often hear from beginner quadcopter pilots is whether they should learn to fly indoors or outdoors. There is plenty to be said for learning indoors when it comes to the basics and improving control but there is nothing better than finding in an open space and really learning how to fly a drone.
One advantage to flying indoors for true beginners is that in certain states of the US you will need to have registered with the FAA before you can fly outdoors. In the UK the CAA (at the time of writing) have not required registration but there are laws governing certain types of drone so again indoor piloting can be advantageous to avoid law infringement.
The reality is that you will not feel like a fully fledged drone pilot until you have taken to the open skies so be sure to get registered and take your drone out to an appropriate and safe place to practice at altitude.
Before you take a 30 minute journey to your favourite drone flying space it is worth noting how much battery life you have. Cheaper drones may have as little as 4 minutes of juice per battery whereas the top of the range domestic quadcopters could have as much as 30 minutes per charge.
If you have a smaller, less expensive drone then check to see if it has removable batteries. If it does then you should be able to pick up extra batteries for as little as £5 each and this is well worth the investment.
For the purposes of learning to fly a quadcopter, the more time you have in the air the better so be sure to fully charge each battery and off you go. Ideally, you want to have at least 30 minutes of total flying time for your first few trips – trust us, it will fly by (excuse the pun).
Quadcopters – The Nuts and Bolts
Most quadcopters are pretty much the same in terms of design these days. Even the cheaper variants will be not too dissimilar to the more advanced models in terms of basic design and functional features.
Four brushed or brushless motors will be fixed equidistantly from each each other with some having propeller guards for extra protection. Generally, the drone will have feet for easier take off and landing and will be controlled via a controller of some description that is not too different to an old RC car controller or games console controller.
Some UAV’s will have built in batteries and some will have detachable batteries – the latter being preferred to increase flight times. If you have bought a drone with a camera this will sometimes be detachable but in most instances this will be fixed. If you are building your own racing drone then it is more likely that you will be buying the individual parts and custom building – in which case you will probably need access to a computer to run the appropriate software to bind the two together – this is not required for out of the box packages.
The propellers on quadcopters are the weakest part of the aircraft and it is not uncommon to be supplied with spare propellers and a tool to detach/attach them. Do not be alarmed if your drone does not come with spare propellers as you will almost certainly be able to buy spares if required.
All drones have slightly different quirks when it comes to controllers and being in control. There are however certain features that are common on almost all drone controllers.
Most physical controllers will have two control sticks; the left being the throttle and the right being the pitch and roll. The throttle essentially controls how much output is going to the motors and will enable you to either fly faster or higher depending on the pitch of the drone. If the drone is level then increasing the throttle will simply take the drone upwards, however if you have the pitch tilting forwards then it will help you to travel faster.
Roll is used to help control the direction your drone is going to travel and essentially helps you to move left or right whilst still facing the drone in the same direction.
Some drones come with headless modes which allow you to control the drone in a way that the direction the drone is facing will dictate how the controls work – but to keep things simple at this stage (and to help you later down the line) we advise you to learn to fly using the throttle, pitch and roll in its standard form.
In addition to these three basic controls (which will allow you to perform the majority of movements you need) there will usually be a yaw control on the throttle stick. This allows you to rotate the drone left (push left) and right (surprisingly – push right).
There may be other buttons on your drone controller that perform other tasks such as operating the camera or doing stunts such as flips or rolls. These will vary from drone to drone and you should consult your instruction manual to be sure how to use these best. Some drones will have apps so you can control them using a smartphone too.
Taking Off and Landing
Taking off is generally not too tricky once you have had a few attempts although landing is generally much harder. The key here when practising is to be in a nice and open space with no trees or other obstacles above you.
The key to success with taking off and holding a safe flying altitude is control and sensitivity. Your drone will not take off as soon as you push the throttle stick and it is worth seeing how far up you need to push it be able to lift off the ground.
Practise pushing the throttle up and down without actually lifting off and then when you feel ready you should push up to gain enough power to take off. Try taking off and landing from a height of around 1 metre several times as this will help you with your throttle control in the long run.
Landing has to be done when the pitch of the drone is level. To initiate a safe landing make sure there is no-one around you and bring your drone so it is almost directly above you. Look around and make sure it is safe for you to step backwards, take a step back and then gently lower the throttle. The slower you do this the better the landing will be.
Attitude to Altitude
Even if your drone has an altitude hold feature it is well worth learning to control the altitude yourself. Altitude can be maintained by holding the throttle level without increasing or decreasing it. This is much easier said than done and is one of the trickier aspects of piloting for newbies.
Some drones will have a maximum altitude of around 20 feet whilst others will be able to fly over 2km high. Before flying at great heights you should be sure you feel like you have full control over your drone. You should also try and maintain line of sight with your drone at all times – even if you have a more expensive one that has GPS – for your first few flights you want to be in control and not having to rely on built in safety measures (although you definitely want them switched on).
Your Practice Ground
We have touched on this already but the golden rule when it comes to where to fly is to be sure it is safe. That doesn’t just mean safe for you but it also means safe for non-drone pilots. Big open spaces are best and if possible you should find dedicated flying spaces. Local councils are best for finding out where to fly locally. For the latest UK guidance be sure to check out the Civi Aviation Authority website.
Be careful using spaces such as gardens or public parks as if you are too close to members of the public or their property/vehicles then you could be breaking the law – not to mention putting yourself and others at risk.
If you do find a dedicated space for flying UAV’s then you should be sure to fly away from other pilots.
Knowing Your Drone
All drones are different in some way and like any good relationship you will get to know your drone over time. Some drones will have superb GPS and collision avoidance sensors whereas others will be completely at the mercy of the pilot (that’s you now by the way).
It is important to know the limitations of your quadcopter as flying out of range or losing battery power can be one mistake too far and could result either in loss or damage to the drone or property of others.
Get to know your drone but save the smoochy stuff for in your own home. Public displays of affection and social media selfies with your drone are something society is better off without!
There are not many greater pleasures in life than taking to the skies in a UAV and although it does have a little bit of a learning curve it is something that most human beings can master to a competent level. As long as you stick to the guidelines and laws of the country you are flying in, stay away from airports and respect the privacy/boundaries of members of the public then you should be okay.
Now it is time to get out there and have some fun (in a perfectly responsible manner of course).
We are keen supporters of Know Before You Fly – a campaign created by the AVUSI in collaboration with the AMA and FAA. Fo more information visit their website by clicking on their logo below: