There’s nothing quite like flying a drone. Once you get up in the air the vantage point and perspective that it give you is intoxicating. For beginners wanting to learn how to fly a drone, there are plenty of courses available and some other blogs can be confusing and not very helpful. Here I am going to share with you everything that you need to know about flying a drone and how to become the best pilot that you can be! For other more experienced pilots, consider this article a great chance to recap the fundamentals!
Flying a drone involves:
- Getting to know the controller – This is your only connection to the drone. Get to know it well!
- A preflight checklist – Check the weather and the drone
- Take off – take off and run initial flight checks
- Mid-flight – practice skills and get great shots!
- Landings – Ensure you return safely
- Continuous review of your flights and skills – you should always be learning!
When I first took my drone out for a flight I headed to an open cricket oval away from any people, houses, tress, power lines and other aerial obstructions. If you have not flown anything into the sky before it can take a while to feel comfortable sending your drone a fair distance away and using the GPS to bring it back to the take off spot.
It’s usual to feel a certain amount of nervousness when first flying an expensive bit of kit around in the air. Follow the steps in this detailed article and I am confident that you will be able to become a drone flying pro in no time at all. Start small and slowly increase the complexity of your flights until you reach the level of competence you want to achieve.
Quadcopter and drone controls
The first thing that you should consider is the only thing that remains in your control while the drone is flying – the remote controller. The controller will be your only connection to the drone as it is hurtling through the air.
It’s really important that you get to know all the features and buttons on your controller and what they do to control the aircraft. The good news is that although there are many different types of controllers the most important features remain the same on nearly every single model.
Let’s take a moment to get to know the most important parts of the controller.
Main parts of a controller
The controller is one of the most important parts of drone flying from a pilot’s perspective. There are many different types of drone controllers but most of them have the same function. On some controller models, you can also change the settings in the software so that the right and left sticks perform different actions. However, here we will discuss what the most common actions are for the controller.
Controllers have power buttons that need to be turned on before it will communicate with the drone. Some controllers are rechargeable while others require the insertion of batteries.
Drone controllers are very power-hungry as they need to send out a radio signal or WiFi signal strong enough that a drone can receive than from a fair distance away. Make sure that your drone controller is charged up fully or the batteries have enough power remaining in them for your proposed flight.
The left stick is responsible for the yaw and throttle of your drone. Here’s a breakdown of what that means:
- Yaw: This means that your drone rotates clockwise or counterclockwise around its center. It doesn’t move forward or backward but remains stationary when performing this movement
- Throttle: this refers to how much power the motors put out pushing up increases the throttle and sends the drone higher. While reducing the throttle will reduce the height of the drone until it lands.
I like to think of this side of the controller as all the actions that you can do while stationary. The drone does not move from it’s position of a map.
The right stick of a controller moves your drone forward, backward, and side to side. it doesn’t change the direction of the nose of the drone (that is done by the left stick. In the drone flying world we call these actions pitch and roll:
- Pitch: this moves the nose of the drone upwards or downwards causing the drone to move forward and backward.
- Roll: This is like pitch but moves each side of the drone down or up and causes the drone to move side to side.
This stick I like to thing as as the adventure stick – you move it to go and investigate all of the things that you can to film and capture with your drone.
If you have a drone with a camera you often have a wheel that you can rotate to move the position of the camera up and down. On the DJI Mavic controllers these are at the top of the drone controller on the left hand side.
The wheel is pulled or pushed left to right to move the camera. On the DJI drones I think of the action in relation to what my finger is doing. If I extend my finger and push the wheel away from my hand I am extending the view of the camera upwards while the opposite, pulling the wheel towards my hand, causes the cameras to curl under.
On some camera DJI and other controllers, there are some buttons on the controller that you can program from within the app for different quick actions. This is handy for things like:
- Quickly changing the camera position – I use this a lot
- Opening up the camera settings – important for capturing the perfect shots
- Toggling between different camera modes – photography and video settings for example
Set them as you need. If you are new to drone flying you will probably need a bit of time flying the drone before you know which functions you use the most and would like to assign to the different features of your drone. For me, it was opening up the camera settings on the front and lifting the camera position so that it faces forward – helps me navigate and provide a front-facing live view.
If you are operating a drone with a camera (racing drone or photography drone) you’ll almost certainly have a screen on the controller. The screen could even be a smart device that you connect via USB to the controller – like a smartphone or a tablet.
The screen provides you with a real-time live view with that the drone is seeing and is perfect for framing your shots. Even after a few years of flying camera drones I always use the rule of thirds grids. It just helps me focus on framing the shot perfectly and removes the guesswork.
If you have planned on flying in a really bright and sunny environment turn your screen brightness all of the way up or purchase a hood for the screen to block out the sunlight. You want to be able to see the screen perfectly!
The DJI series drones also have a load of advanced features that give you confidence while flying the drone and allows you to focus on getting the shot!
Sports or turbo mode is found on some drones. This allows the pilot to move quicker and more agile through the air and turns off obstacle avoidance. It probably best not to turn this on if you are a beginner drone pilot.
This mode will also make the drone much more reactive but at a cost to the flight time as the movements will be more aggressive and therefore require more power.
Return to home
I have never used return to home but I’m so glad that it is there if I ever need it. Return to home brings back the drone to either where it took off from or it will return to where the remote is currently located. It’s a safety feature that makes me extra confident when flying in unknown for difficult conditions.
I have set my return to home flight height to 55 meters and have never had any issue with the drone needing to avoid any trees or other obstacles at that height while returning home.
Some of the more advanced camera drones have automatic capturing modes. This is where the drone will fly a certain pattern while keeping the subject of the shot in the frame. This is great for people that want to grab a quick drone shot for social media or other online purpose.
The pause button stops the drone in it’s tracks as soon as you push it. It could be that you have noticed that the drone is approaching a hazard or the conditions have changed quickly and you risk hurting the drone or someone/thing else. Having a pause button when the drone is performing automatic flying patters is another confidence builder!
Now that you know the most important parts of a drone controller we now need to do our simple preflight checks to make sure the drone and the conditions are OK for your planned flight.
Before flying your drone it is very important to run through a preflight checklist (just like airline pilots do!). If you are a beginner I recommend that you do this formally at least once or twice and then less formally as you become more confident. Awareness and acknowledgement of hazards before flying will save you a load of headaches!
Get a downloadable version of this checklist to take with you on site – click here!
Weather is the one thing that you should ALWAYS pay attention to when running your pre-flight checklist. Drones are small electronic gadgets and even the smallest amount of rain or bad weather can cause issues. Here’s that you need to check and some guidelines for each situation:
Heavy rain is a big no-no for nearly every type of drone. but there are some water proof drones on the market that you can fly in very rainy conditions and also land on water! So, unless you have a waterproof drone you must never flying in the rain – no matter how light it is – the propellers can easily concentrate the light rain and flick it onto the body and into the vents.
You must also be careful if you are flying after some heavy rain! Landing in long grass that is particularly wet can also cause water to enter the drones vents.
I have landed my drone once a downpour started and the drone survived but I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it!
Oh the awesome shots you could get while it is snowing! But will the drone survive? There are two aspects to flying in snowey conditions:
- The snow melting on the hot body of the drone and water entering the circuit board
- The cold conditions that may be outside the operating range of the drone
Once again if you do not have a waterproof drone you probably need to stay away from flying your drone while it is actively snowing!
The most important question for this part is what is too windy for a drone to fly? Well the maximum speed that your drone can reach is the highest wind that it’ll be able to counteract while flying. That means that for most commercial drones that is a wind speed of up to 30 miles per hour.
A simple rule of thumb is that the top wind speed that the drone can fly in is two-thirds of a drones maximum speed.
Once aspect that you must play close attention to is which direction the wind is coming from. You need to fly into the wind on your outbound journey and return to home with the wind. I have been very careful with this as you risk the drone running out of battery before it can return to its take off spot.
A 100% humidity rating means that the air is currently holding as much water as it can and it signifies that rain will soon happen. Some manufactures have stated that you fly in no more than 80 % humidity.
The electronics of the drone get quite warm and so unless the drone is starting very cold and likely to have water from the humid car condensation on the electronics there may not be so much of an issue for your flight. The simple case here is to use your common sense and try not to fly if it looks like water may be able to get into the vents in your drone.
The last thing I check for is quickly changing weather patterns. In some parts of the world and country it is not unusual for the rain to sweep in quickly. Although most drone flights will be less that 30 minutes, this is still enough time for the weather to change dramatically – take the time to check what the weather will do for the hour or so that you will be on location.
The next thing you need to check is site safety.
Once you are on location you should take a moment to check the location. Before I turn up sometimes I like to check on google maps for any spots of interests that I may want to explore while flying. I also take a moment to informally ask myself about these things:
- Are you allowed to fly here? There are a number of great apps that you can use to check to see if you can fly in the area that you want to fly in. I use OpenSky but there are many other great options.
- Other rules and regulations – Are you near a highway or is there an event going on that you need to make sure you are the required distance away from?
- Trees, houses, and other items to consider – What obstructions and other hazards are in the immediate location for flying?
These simple checks will allow you to fly a drone like a pro in the confidence that you are not putting yourself or anyone else at risk! Next as we are setting up the aircraft we need to look at the drones itself!
Check the aircraft
As you are starting to set up the aircraft there are a few important points that you quickly need to check over before take off:
- Batteries – Are they securely in the drone and fully charged?
- Camera settings – are the camera settings how to anticipate they need to be set? You don’t want to waste time hovering to get the settings started from scratch if you can help it!
- Memory card – Has the memory card got enough free space for your proposed flight and filming time?
- The physical condition of the drone – does the drone look in good physical condition. This includes:
- GPS lock – Has the drone got a good GPS lock so that when you come to take off it will hover with minimum drift?
Every so often you should do a full check on your drone and you can use my checklist that can be found attached to this article. Once you are satisfied with the drone and its parts – it’s time to get ready for take-off!
At this point, the drone will have been checked and you should be comfortable with the controller and its features. You should be in a location that you know that you are allowed to be flying a drone in. The initial take-off will tell you everything you need to know about whether or not it is safe to continue the flight. Never continue with a flight if the drone it acting strangely or the conditions change enough (like a dog or person coming close to your drone).
Place your drone on the ground in a place that is open and free from things that will get in the way of the propellers spinning like long blades of grass or sticks that touch the propellers. It’s a good idea to remove any large free rocks or sticks from the area that can become airborne with the down-wash. This is why a lot of drone pilots use a landing pad. It’s great for beach take-offs too!
Before I take off I also look UP and check that there is a free column of air that the drone can use if I need it to return to home on its own. The drone will use this to land from its return to home height of 55 m (or however you have it set).
Check for a strong GPS lock and we are ready to take off!
Take off and hover for a moment
Some models of drone have a take off slider that will auto launch the drone. The DJI app, for example, has this feature. Other drones will require you to first spool up the propellers and then slow increase the throttle to raise the drone into the air. Whatever way that you are required to launch your drone you should continually check for a few things:
What does the drone sound like while it is flying?
The noise that a drone makes is dependent on a load of factors but the biggest are the motors and propellers. My Mavic Air sounds like a swarm of bees, while a larger drone will have a much lower frequency.
The sound should be consistent and change or pulse as the drone does maneuvers or tries to stay steady in the wind. Lets the drone hover for a bit and take note of what it sounds like. As long as there are no high pitched noises or abrupt stopping and starting of noises you are in the clear!
Is the drone holding its potion and not wobbling?
s there any motion or swaying in the drone’s position as it is stationary or at the end as it is changing direction? It could signify that a software calibration is needed.
Take your hands off the controller and the drone should hover in position. Does it drift? The GPS signal should keep in in place and ensure there isn’t too much of a drift. We want to make sure that the drone stays still because when you are doing some awesome time lapse shots it needs to maintain its positioning (both height and location).
Any warning notifications pop up?
While you are hovering. Do any notifications pop up? It’s normal for some notifications to pop up here are ones that I get regularly and you should worry too much if you get them too:
- Aircraft interference
- High wind
- Weak signal
Obviously, take notice of them but make sure no persistent warnings that keep on popping up. Once you are in the clear and the drone is stable and is not making any weird movements or noises you are ready to ascend to the hights you need!
This is where the fun stuff happens!
Now that the drone is airborne and you have the ability to control the drone well from your controller you should get ready to execute the drone mission that you want to complete. For me, that includes practicing some of my flying skills and often it is to collect video and photos of a nice part of the world!
Practicing some of your flying techniques is fantastic but luckily some drone manufacturers are making it easier than ever to get shots that would take a long time to master. I’m talking about DJI’s intelligent flight modes.
Intelligent flight modes
The latest DJI drones and GO4 app have the following intelligent flight filming modes. These modes allow you to capture some impressive footage without having to master the manual flying needed to get such cinematographic shots.
- Rocket: Ascend with the camera pointing downward keeping the subject in view.
- Dronie: Fly backward and upward, with the camera locked on your subject. I use this one all of the time and it results in a brilliant shot for almost anything.
- Circle: The drone circles around the subject keeping a fixed distance away (does not move with the subject)
- Helix: Fly upward increasing heigh while spiraling around the subject.
- Asteroid: The drone flies backward and upward. It takes several photos, then flies to its starting point. create a “liitle planet” type of shot.
- Boomerang: The drone flies backward around the subject in an oval path, rising as it flies away from its starting point. It then descends as it flies back in.
These can start to look a little cookie cutter when used too often – that’s why I like to capture the majority of my footage with manual flying techniques.
Drone flying techniques
When I am flying the drone I like to try and imitate some of the intelligent flight modes and slowing down or speeding up some of the movements that the drone or the gimbal makes.
Here are 5 really awesome drone flying techniques that you can try to recreate while flying.
The location reveal shot
This shot is awesome when used at the beginning of videos or drone montages. This shot starts with the drone camera pointing downwards and then as the drone is moving and has some height panning the camera upwards to reveal where you are.
This is used at 9 seconds in this LinkedIn vlog that I made:
I really like this hot and try to get one awakening shot every time that I go flying! I often try and include this shot as I transition to a downwards facing shot and then moving to a forward facing shot – that way I end up with three shots all in one allowing me to be efficient with the limited battery that a drone has!
With this shot, you want to emulate the sorts of shots that a camera on top of a crane creates. The crane shot is much closer to the ground and is typically used for getting close-ups of buildings or overhead shots of some sort of action or subject.
The transitions should be smooth – as if operated on a boom – and then can extend upwards revealing that it is in fact a drone capturing the footage. The issues with this shot is that you need to get permission from the people that are in the
Keep the subject of the shot in the center of the frame throughout the movement of the drone. This requires you to pan the camera, yaw, and roll the drone altogether. It can be hard to find the right amount of each but play around with it until you find what works! I try and count to 10 while doing these sorts of shots so that you are sure to have enough when you get back to your computer and start editing.
This shot is a staple shot in the drone world! Some advanced drones and apps have this as an automatic flight option and for most people that would be just as good. However, where the fun in that?
For this shot, you need your subject to be in the frame and then you pitch and roll your drone to match the speed and direction of the subjects as it moves. This shot is great for following cars, people walking or on other forms of transport, and any other moving object that your drone can keep up with!
Here I used a follow shot to follow a Frisbee as it was thrown:
Fly though shot
The fly-through shot is one where you fly through some obstructions like trees, poles, windows, etc, and then explode into a new expanse. This shot is perfect for getting a great sense of the depth of the scene by providing a perspective on the foreground and the vast expanse of what lays on the other side.
Here is a time when flew the drone through some trees – it was pretty scary for me as there were loads of branches around!
You need a good amount of skill and luck to perform these sorts of moves. I wouldn’t often opt for this sort of shot in a normal drone flight as it’s just a little too risky. To get the drone to do what you want it to do you may have to turn off the forward and backward sensors so that it doesn’t stop and refuse to have near misses with some branches.
I love a good dronie! With this shot you keep the subject in the frame and withdraw the drone until the entire landscape is in view. It can be done by pulling the pitch up and withdrawing the drone like win the beginning of this LinkedIn vlog:
Or it can be shot right up in the air like a rocket like in the beginning of this vlog:
Once again, the DJI intelligent flight modes will do this for you and it will result in a really smooth transition. By learning to do it yourself you’ll be able to have a great level of control over the shot and the speed at which things happen!
But, here is the one tip that I always use to make my shot more impressive:
TOP TIP: Combine three movements
The biggest tip I have for you to make the most of your drone shots is to combine three or more movements to maximize the cinematographic feelings of your videos. By that I mean you have these movements and rotations of axis to choose from:
- Yaw right/left
- Pitch up/down
- Roll right/left
- Throttle up/down
- Camera pan up/down
- Camera pan left right (on some models)
What I like to do is start moving the drone in one direction. Then add another movement with the other joystick. Then I add a third with the camera or djustments to the joystick.
The tick is to hold the sticks and gimbal wheels steady so that you achieve a smooth movement for at least ten seconds. When you come to edit the footage you will have some awesome footage that will be smooth and long enough for you to speed up if you need to!
When the battery level is low it is time to return to your take off spot or landing area. If you are taking off in a new spot – make sure that the area is clear of debris and loose rocks that could easily damage the drone.
Takeoff and landing is where the majority of incidents will happen so, even though it is the end of the flight, it is not time to lose focus. Your drone will probably have a maximum decent rate limiter but if it does not you shouldn’t descend too fast. Your drone can get caught in it’s own down wash and become trapped in an effect called a vortex ring state.
As you approach the ground you will notice a lot of movement on the loose parts sitting on your proposed landing site. This ground turbulence can cause your drone to become unstable but can be overcome by hovering at shoulder height just above the landing spot before bringing the drone in for touchdown.
When the drone touches down, simply pull the throttle all the way down and hold it there until your motors shut off.
A catch landing is where to “catch” the drone by snatching it out of the sky. Some drones will shut off automatically when they are turned upside down. So a catch landing often involves flipping the drone upside down as it is taken out of the air.
These types of landings are much riskier than a normal landing and it is better if you can land without having to catch it out of the air. You can hurt the drone and yourself by doing a catch landing. However, there are some instances where a catch landing is preferred as when launching from a boat.
Return to home
Some drones have a return to home feature. At the push of one button your end up with an automatic landing. I tend to use these only as a last resort or if I am confident the drone will be able to do it (like when the landing spot is out in the open). Drones will return to a GPS location and some take photos of the take-off spot for a precision landing!
Learning to fly your drone like a pro can take time. Nothing will beat spending more time in the air. Never fly outside of your skill level and puch the limits of your skills in safe areas.
Here we have gone over how to fly a drone! Happy flying my drone friends!