What is headless mode on a drone? [Animation explainer]

While shopping for a drone, you often see all the different options, including headless mode. Some hard-core drone pilots say that using headless mode is cheating, whilst others see it as a nice way to control your drone when you are not as confident or flying in tricky situations.

Headless mode is a setting where the drone will move in the direction the joysticks are moved, irrespective of the direction the drone is facing. The drone has no “head” or front. It helps beginners and children fly their drones more confidently.

I use headless mode when I want to try out a new drone or fly in particularly challenging circumstances, such as flying towards myself or flying relatively close to overhanging obstacles to get the perfect shot.

Here is an animation that helps you understand exactly what headless mode is on a drone and how it moves in relation to the joysticks.

headless mode on a drone animation

Given this simple animation, we can now look at the direction the drone moves when it is orientated in a different direction. Check out this full movement graphic below:

What is headless mode on a drone - full movement guide
Headless mode removes the head or “front” from the drone so it always moves in the direction of the joystick.

You can see that headless mode simplifies the flight by always moving the drone in the direction of the joystick. There is no “front” in headless mode.

Drones have a headless mode for various reasons, which we will talk about now.

Why do drones have headless mode?

It is typically cheaper and less expensive consumer-level drones with headless mode. That is because these drones have been designed specifically with younger pilots in mind, and the headless mode makes it much easier for them to fly their drones safely and with the minimum of training.

It makes the drones beginner-friendly, opens up a wider user base and customer base for the drone manufacturer and is, arguably, safer for the pilot and the drone.

1. Beginner-friendly

Drones with headless mode are typically very beginner-friendly.

Drones that children use often have a range of other advanced features such as automatic hover, altitude hold, one-button return and much more. These features allow the new pilot to focus on the enjoyment of flying and the excitement of sending a camera into the sky rather than worrying about what they are doing.

As the pilot progresses in their capabilities, they may wish to turn off headless mode later and fly using the first-person view video stream.

The manufacturers desire for every new drone pilot is to fly as quickly as possible once they receive their exciting new drone delivery.

Using advanced technology such as headless mode allows the pilot to focus on flying the drone around the environment rather than getting bogged down with the technicalities of flying their drone.

2. Quicker to learn

When you first receive a drone, it can be very overwhelming.

When I first received my drone, I was overwhelmed with everything, including:

  • the buttons on the remote control
  • making sure the drone was prepared for flight safely
  • connecting the drone to the remote control
  • connecting the remote control to the app
  • understanding the first-person video view
  • understanding the on-screen display items
  • navigating the settings and set up procedure for my drone
  • understanding the power of calibration and its responsibility for keeping my drone safe
  • and much more

You can shortcut some of the overwhelming aspects of flying a drone in 3D space by selecting headless mode.

I believe that it helps flatten the learning curve whilst also providing an awesome opportunity to play with the drone close by without relying on always looking down at the screen to navigate and control the drone.

Once users want to extend their skill set, most drones can easily be switched from headless mode to regular flying mode.

3. Wider customer base

In the early stages of drone consumerism, they were hard to control. This reputation was because very few drones had advanced stabilisation features such as obstacle avoidance or automatic hover.

Drone manufacturers quickly realised that having a wider customer base meant making the drone easier to fly for those with zero experience and younger age.

Drones have headless modes because they bring the joy of flying a drone to many more demographics.

Incorporating headless mode into cheaper drones means that the marketplace for drone purchases becomes very large, and drones can shed the stigma of being hard to control and prohibitively expensive.

4. Safer

Arguably, headless mode is safer than normal flying mode for some people relying on a direct line of sight during their flight mission.

Headless mode is only safer when you are not relying on the live video stream being transmitted to the smart device or a remote display for navigation.

Headless mode only makes sense when you have a direct line of sight with the drone.

Drones that can travel many thousands of metres away from the direct line of sight from the pilot would not benefit from headless mode as the live video stream would be in contradiction to the joystick movements for left and right flight actions.

The downsides of headless mode

Headless mode on a drone is not a silver bullet that can fix a whole range of issues with the flick of a button. On the contrary, headless mode can become an issue for serious drone pilots.

The pilot can become dependent on how the drone acts in headless mode, or the pilot becomes limited to the sorts of drones they can use.

Here are some of the downsides of using headless mode when flying a drone.

1. You can become dependent

Flying a drone in headless mode is fantastic when you are learning.

In the early stages of flying a drone, your mission should be to have as much fun as possible, start with a low level of skill, and slowly build up your skill level by expanding your zone of capability and capacity.

However, some drone pilots can become dependent on headless mode for tricky situations and get them out of trouble.

Learning to fly a drone means growing your skill base slowly and steadily. Do not allow the headless mode to limit your growth and keep you stuck in the early stages of learning.

If you want to know more about how to practice flying your drone and how to get better faster, check out my other article here.

How to practice flying a drone

2. It limits the drones you can buy

Not all drones come with headless mode. The more expensive consumer-level camera drones quite often do not utilise headless mode but offer a range of other artificial intelligence flight software to keep your drone safe.

Expensive consumer drones such as the DJI Mavic series are purchased for the primary use case of capturing great photography and videos. The pilot is more focused on the on-screen display than flying the drone in this case.

Even though the higher-end photography drones do not offer headless mode explicitly, some offer other types of advanced flying software.

Course lock is an example of other flight software that allows you to keep your drone moving in one direction to focus on the videography aspects of the flight. We will talk about this in more detail below.

3. Confusion when watching through FPV

it is not good to use headless mode if you regularly review the flight through the first person view video stream.

It can be very confusing when you have headless mode activated, and you are trying to navigate back to your takeoff spot through the first person video stream.

Should you find yourself in a tricky situation with headless mode, always use the return to home button available on many drones. Allowing the drone to return to its landing spot safely using GPS will be the best way for you to keep your drone safe for your next flight.

4. More people may want to borrow your drone

lastly, if your drone has headless mode, you may find yourself the victim of many people asking to borrow your drone.

Headless modes make it much easier for children and inexperienced parts to fly your drone as long as they view it directly and do not rely on the video stream.

If you want to know more about lending someone your drone and how they can borrow your drone safely, check out my other article.

Can someone borrow my drone? [SOLVED]

Is headless mode good?

Headless mode is good if you are a beginner pilot; you want to focus on manoeuvring your drone in a complex environment or test the drone’s limits while it is in line of sight.

Should I fly in headless mode?

There are several reasons why you may consider flying your drone in headless mode. This includes:

  • flying in line of sight – if you are only flying your drone in line of sight, it will be easier to fly using headless mode.
  • For obstacle courses – if you have set out an obstacle course and wish to test your drone’s limits, you may wish to fly in headless mode.
  • Follow mode when you are not the subject – following an object is much easier in headless mode when the drone is not automatically tracking you.
  • When purchasing a new drone – if you have purchased a new drone and want to make sure that you have got to grips with all of the important components, you should consider flying in headless mode before taking off on a long flight.
  • Build a new skill – you can use headless mode to build a new skill and capability. Perhaps you are flying a range of different drones regularly for your job. Getting to grips with the full range of options and software features offered will help you fly more drones safely.

You would rarely want to fly in headless mode for photography or video purposes because your focus will be on the drone’s screen and first-person view on the smart device or remote screen.

Headless Mode will make it difficult to frame your photos and videos. The joystick directions will always be relative to your position rather than the drone’s position relative to a subject.

Who is headless mode best for?

Headless mode on a drone is not just for children. It could be that you are a safety-conscious flyer, and you wish to try out some new skills on a new drone and want to play it safe.

Here are all demographics who will benefit from getting familiar with headless mode.

Children

Children have a much shorter attention span than adults. They are not interested in understanding the intricate amount of information required to fly a drone using the first-person view, on-screen display items, or software features.

Having a drone that can be flown almost immediately by simply watching it in the air can greatly benefit children and help them flatten out the learning curve for flying a drone.

Ensure that you purchase a drone with advanced stabilisation and flight features, including auto hover, auto altitude hold, and collision avoidance. All of these features allow children to fly safely and easily.

It also helps adults when they learn to fly their drones and provides the perfect buffer for over-enthusiastic and potentially dangerous new pilots.

Safety conscious flyers

Some people are much more safety conscious than others.

It took me a long time to feel comfortable sending my drone out over the water, over dense bushland or near overhanging tree branches and aerial obstacles.

Headless mode is perfect for the safety-conscious flyer who wants to ensure that the drone can be manoeuvred easily without relying on the first-person view.

The fact that the left and right joystick operations become reversed when not using headless mode and flying towards yourself can confuse some people and is a major cause of pilot error induced accidents. Headless mode can solve all of this confusion.

People who always fly in line of sight

Headless mode may be your go-to setting if you always fly relatively close to the pilot.

Some people buy drones to fly around their back garden or within relative proximity to the takeoff spot. If you are flying your drone for fun and no photography or video purposes, headless mode may be the best setting for you to fly your drone

How do you fly in headless mode?

Flying in headless mode is as easy as switching on the setting using hardware buttons or the software buttons provided by the drone app.

Switch it on

On some remote controls, you need to turn on headless mode using a software button that changes the stick mode shown on the LCD. An example of this is shown in the YouTube video below.

After the drone has been switched into headless mode, your right-hand joystick will now always correspond with the drone’s movement. Be careful not to turn off headless mode, as you will very quickly accidentally become confused with the direction the drone is moving.

Keep the drone in line of sight

To operate headless mode effectively, you need to keep the drone in line of sight. Headless mode means piloting requires visual contact at all times.

Many countries require that the pilot always remains individual contact with the drone. Check your countries drone regulations to ensure that you will always stay within the limits of the law.

Have fun!

Importantly, with headless mode on, you can always control the drone predictably no matter what direction the drone is pointing. This mode of operation opens up various opportunities such as high-speed drone flying and fast obstacle course navigation.

With headless mode attached, even the most complex of drone obstacle courses can be navigated successfully by inexperienced pilots.

Here are some excellent drones with headless modes that you may wish to consider for your next drone purchase.

Drones with headless mode

It is typically less expensive drones that have headless mode. This fact is because the manufacturers have worked out that the appeal of these drones is for children and young adults who are more likely to crash their drones.

More expensive consumer-level drones have different smart flight features that can act very similarly to headless mode but require a little bit more understanding and training before proper use.

SYMA X600 Foldable DronePerfect for kidsLink for more information
Holy Stone HS110D FPV RC DroneA perfect beginner droneLink for more information
Maetot Drones for Kids Adults BeginnersBest little-known headless droneLink for more information

SYMA X600 Foldable Drone

This drone is easy to fly with a single keypress for takeoff and landing. Altitude hold allows the drone to hover at a given height and headless mode enables kids and beginners to feel comfortable flying the drone without confusing orientation issues.

Learn the other surprising features of this drone – click here!

The two rechargeable batteries support up to 24 minutes of flying time, and the drone is easy to fold up and transport due to the folding arms of the drone.

A wonderful gift for children and new drone pilots.

You can even get an upgraded drone version (click here to view) with a 1080p high-definition camera, and a first-person view live video stream.

The upgraded version also comes with the Smart SYMA APP, which connects to the drone via Wi-Fi and supports a range of functions, including flight path mode and easy photography and videography framing.

Holy Stone HS110D FPV RC Drone

This drone comes jampacked with features, including a 1080p high field of view camera. It has a wide-angle lens, making it very easy to capture some stunning videography.

other features of this drone include:

  • altitude hold – focus on shooting images rather than focusing on the throttle speed of the drone.
  • Headless mode – avoid direction confusion for new pilots
  • 3D flips – just a little bit of fun
  • hand controls – instruct the camera to take photos by gestures of scissors and videos by making a paper shape with your hand.
  • Mobile control allows for voice control, gestural control, gravity sensor control, and other smart features embedded into the drone.

I was surprised by the other features of this drone at a bargain price – check them out here.

Maetot Drones for Kids Adults Beginners

This inexpensive drone has a 1080p high definition gesture control camera that allows you to take photos or videos automatically and stream first-person view video to the remote control.

This little-known bargain drone may surprise you – check out the details here – click here.

Other features include:

  • altitude hold
  • headless mode
  • one key takeoff and landing
  • multiple flight modes
  • up to 26 minutes with two batteries

DJI drones and headless mode

DJI drones do not come with headless mode. The drone will always move in the direction the drone faces when the joystick is moved.

However, you may be interested in other features such as course Lock and Homelock that will lock the current nose direction rather than lock the joystick actions with the drone’s movement.

Course lock and Home lock

Both of these modes are available on a range of DJI drones.

From the manual:

  • Course Lock – Lock the current nose direction as the aircraft’s forward direction. The aircraft will move in the locked direction regardless of its orientation (yaw angle).
  • Home Lock – Pull the stick backward to move the aircraft toward its recorded home point. The Home Lock mode works regardless or whether or not you fly around or just out in a single direction. Pulling back always flies the drone back toward you (assuming you set your home location as your standing point).

The final word

This article has been over everything you need to know about headless mode and how to use it.

It is the perfect setting for beginner pilots and those who wish to be extra safe during their first flights with a new drone. It enables you to create a shallower learning curve to get used to flying the drone rather than the intricacies of the software or other features for drone flight.

Learning to use headless mode and a normal mode for your drone will make you a much better pilot in the long run, and it is something every pilot should try at some point.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton is a writer and YouTuber with a PhD in science. His drone footage has been featured on TV and he has written and/or produced videos for Science Alert, COSMOS magazine, and Australia's Science Channel among others. He has been a drone pilot for many years and has flown many types of drones. His favourite is still the DJI Mavic Air for the portability and functionality packed into a small and portable drone!