How to improve drone flying skills. 8 simple steps!

Improving drone flying skills is a matter of practice. When you first open a drone box you can get flying within a matter of minutes of taking out the drone. Modern machines have a load of different flying automation which means that for the majority of users you can be assured your drone will be safe. This includes sensors, cameras, and automatic obstacle avoidance. But how you improve drone flying skills is by learning how to cope without any of these advanced features. Not only will it help improve your drone and your drone footage but it will enable you to land your drone safely should any of them fail. In this article we are going to go over all of the different things that you can do to improve your drone skills.

How to improve drone flying skills: improving your drone flow skills comes down to practising all of the different manoeuvres and stick combinations so that you know exactly how to make the drone do what you want it to. Use manoeuvres, different flight environments, and regularly expand your capability by pushing your drone limits.

There is a way to make sure that while you are flying that you remain safe and that is by not doing anything that is not too far outside of your capability. Learning to fly a drone and improving your drone to skills requires you to take many baby steps rather than jumping in feet 1st to skills and situations where you are uncomfortable.

Check out this YouTube video of one of the best drone pilots in the world:

Let’s take a look at all of the things that you can do to improve your drone flying skills bit by bit. Maybe you will be interviewed by wired one day as one of the best drone pilots in the world!

1 Fly as often as possible

The first thing you need to realise is that you need to fly as often as you can to improve your drone skills. When you first buyer drone it can be tempting to use it as often as possible because the excitement to do so is there. But as time goes on, and your enthusiasm decreases, it can be hard to try and find time to fly a drone.

This is particularly true if you are flying in a jurisdiction where you need to travel a fair distance to an area where you can fly a drone. Or, if you are a busy professional with a family it can be hard to find time for yourself.

Flying as often as possible comes down to preparation. You need to make it a habit that at the end of each flight that you:

  • charge the batteries – by charging the batteries as soon as you get home you will be prepared for your next flight. There’s nothing like waiting for batteries to charge to create another excuse to not fly.
  • Clean the drone – a couple of times I have been flying and I have got a lot of insect splatter on the drone propellers and body. It is very easy to clean and will mean that you’re ready to go at the end.
  • Charge the controller – if you’re controller or remote control requires charging make sure that it is at least half full for your next flight.
  • Place all of the important pieces of equipment together in one grab bag – once everything is ready I make sure that all of the equipment is in a single bag. This is normally in a place near my front door so that I can “grab and go”. Having a bag that has everything you need in it in one convenient location makes it easy to grab as a second thought as you are heading out of the door.

Preparing the above steps to make sure that when you are on the fence about getting out and flying your drone, or if you are heading somewhere where you may be able to fly drone, it will make it a no-brainer to take it with you. Using this technique has increased my flight time significantly.

2 Fly in as many types of conditions as possible

When you are trying to improve your drone flying skills you need to be able to fly in as many different conditions as possible.

In my experience, no two days are the same. I have flown in many different types of conditions including high winds and light rain. I do not recommend flying in light rain but the shower seemed to come eye of nowhere. If you want some ideas of where you can fly your drone to capture some awesome images check out my other blog post – drone photography ideas – 20 ideas to level up your drone shots! Click here.

You will also have to practice understanding when not to fly your drone. A typical rule of thumb is that you should not fly your drone if the winds speeds and gusts exceed more than two thirds of your drone’s maximum velocity. You should also never fly in heavy rain more consistent drizzle. That’s because if the electronics of your drone get wet there is very little you can do to get your drone back in a working condition.

Here are the different conditions I think you should learn to fly in:

  • fine sunny weather – in the early days you should try and fly as often as possible in nice dry conditions. This will allow you to focus on things like manoeuvres and drone precision flying rather than competing with the wind.
  • Windy conditions – going out in relatively windy conditions will show you how to manage your drone as it drifts due to constant wins and also show you how quickly the battery wears down when the drone is trying to maintain a position and altitude in strong winds.
  • Gusty conditions – wind gusts can really ruin some footage as they throw off the drone’s automatic position system. Often I encounter this sort of weather near cliffs and the ocean.
  • Dusk and dawn – learning to fly in slightly lower light conditions will mean that you don’t rely on the first person view as much as you would normally. You cannot fly your drone at nighttime so you have to make sure that you are taking off after, and returning, before sunset and after sunrise.

If you feel uncomfortable in any condition remember to immediately land your drone and abort the flight. If it makes you seriously uncomfortable this is not the time to be doing this training or flight so just wait for better conditions. There is no need to damage a drone for the sake of learning to fly.

3 Fly in different patterns

To improve your drone flying skills some of the best things you can invest in our learning to fly in specific and reproducible patterns. I try and reproduce all of the automatic photography modes that are on my DJI drone such as dronie (where you fly backwards and upwards to reveal the landscape), point of interest (where you keep the frame on a particular subject while rotating around it). All of these are done with very predictable flight patterns and stick movements.

It teaches me to fly in a controlled manner and allows me to fine tune the joystick controls. Each of these different shapes require you to expertly manipulate the different functions of drone thrust. This includes:

  • yaw – yaw is the control that rotates your drone clockwise or counterclockwise around it centrepoint. It doesn’t move forward or backward when you use your left stick but instead it should remain stationary when performing this movement.
  • Throttle – this refers to how much power is supplied to the motors and will increase the height of the drone.
  • 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 up or down causing the drone to move side to side.

Getting to grips with how the drone responds to each stick and the combination of movements is the only way to really get better at flying a drone in a reproducible and specific way. Do these movements while looking through first person view on your controller and by looking at the drone as it flies through the sky.

Using these simple controls you should be able to fly in different patterns.

Box pattern

Flying in a box pattern allows you to focus on the role and pitch of the drone. Point your drone forward and move the drone so that it moves in a straight line to the corner of a square then use yaw to rotate the drone 90° and repeat until you have returned to your starting point.

Figure of eight

This one is much harder to get to grips with because you are required to move the drone forward whilst also using the roll and yaw to keep the drone moving in a figure of eight. Also once you get to the other side of the figure of eight the controls are reversed so that you can complete the other side of the figure of eight.

Combine these two patterns i.e. the box and figure of eight pattern and you will be able to fly much more comfortably and reproducibility in any circumstance.

 

4 Practice flying towards yourself

If your drone isn’t equipped with headless mode (where the controls are agnostic to the direction of the drone) you should spend some time practising flying towards yourself. As you are flying towards yourself the left and right controls are reversed which means that if you are not using the first person view of your controller it can be very confusing initially.

You should do this as often as you need to so that it becomes second nature for when you are doing the return trip of your flight. One of the easiest ways to practice this is to head out and away from you turn around and then do a zigzag path back towards yourself.

You can check the flight GPS location to make sure that you are travelling towards yourself while also moving side to side in a reproducible and controllable way. One of the great reasons to practice this skill is so that you can get some awesome selfie shots and “dronie shots” so that you can show off your skills online.

5 Use a flight simulator

Sometimes you can just feel like you need some simple training before you are comfortable enough taking it out into the wild! It’s also a great way to see if drone flying is for you without spending a dime on a drone! Quadcopters and drones can be really expensive so a little bit of training you save you from the heartache of a big crash!

Here are the top flight simulators that you can buy (the DJI simulator even has a free option).

  1. DJI Drones simulator – Free, Enterprise, and Energy versions available. It has different training modules that support nearly every drone that they have manufactured.
  2. DroneSimPro – $29.99 for Mac and Windows.
  3. Real Flight RF8 – $188 for windows
  4. Phoenix R/C – 139 for windows

Some of the above drone simulators offer the ability to link up with a controller so you get a real world flying experience. These drone simulators can test your flying, with real physics emulation. in a number of different flying conditions. These are all a great way for beginners to practice and also for seasoned flyers to get some virtual flight hours under their belts so that hey an execute even better when they next head out for a flight!

6 Understand what automated flying functions your drone has

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 mode

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.

Pause buttons

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.

7 Use a drone that you are comfortable with

In all of these exercises you must use a drone where you are comfortable pushing your limits. If you are fortunate enough not to have a lot of drones I would select a mid range drone of your collection to practice and expand your capability.

If you practice and try to improve your skills with a very expensive drone you will be to risk adverse to really understand where your limits lie. If you are fortunate enough to have some budget to buy another drone I recommend that you buy a cheaper drone such as the Mavic mini.

DJI Mavic mini

The DJI Mavic mini is a super lightweight, portable drone that can be flown outside without registration in a load of different countries. It is incredibly compact and light which means that this drone can stay in the air for up to 30 minutes – which is longer than most drones which are much more expensive. Just because you are paying less it does not mean that you are skimping out on other really important drone features.

It can support 12-megapixel aerial photos and can shoot high definition (2.7 K) videos. In such a small device you even have a three-axis motorized gimbal so you can be assured of a steady and blur-free recording or photography session. It even comes with a remote controller so you can keep track of your drone and control it with ease. Having a controller cannot be understated it really improves the piloting experience.

Pros

+ 30 min Max. Flight Time

+ Under 250 g

+ Smart features of much more expensive drones

Cons

~ No 4K – understandable at this price point

~ Effected by strong winds

~ No avoidance sensors

The Mavic mini is inexpensive enough so that you don’t feel too bad if you have the odd accident and also lacks any sensors so that you will have to be on top form and completely aware of what the drone is doing.

8 Seek help from a professional drone instructor

There are many awesome drone pilots and professionals that can help you fly your drone better. Now that drones are more heavily regulated there are more and more education providers that are focused on delivering drone flying education.

Interestingly, many universities are now offering short courses on drone flight so that you can become accredited in your local jurisdiction. If you don’t want to attend an in person flight school there are many online options to learn from an online course and then practice in your own time.

There are many flight schools such as:

  • Drone U – drone new offers some of the widest range of drone training courses from beginner courses all the way up to advanced training. This is a subscription model and they currently charge a $470 per year membership or you can pay $47 per month. This gets you a private Facebook community, access to all online training courses, as well as a bunch of other resources.
  • Drone launch Academy – this is an online course that is based primarily on video content. It primarily has content about part 107 and the cause can be purchased for $149.
  • Drone pilot ground school – this company has trained 25,000+ solo pilots and enterprise drone pilot teams. Depending on how many people in your team need to get their part 107 certification the cost varies from $299 for one person up to $192 per person for groups of 10 to 24 people.
  • Drone training on Udemy – If you’re looking for specific drone skills a really well received course is drone training: 50 drills to improve your flying skills. In this course you will learn about 50 drills in order to fly your drone with more precision and dexterity. The great thing is that it’s only about US$10 on sale. It has 3.5 hours of OnDemand video, two downloadable resources, and full lifetime access as well as a certificate of completion once you are done.

Summary

So, there we have all of the ways where you can improve your drone flying skills. As long as you are constantly trying your best to expand your zone of capability and you are trying your best to learn from each mistake you will get better little bit by little bit.

Remember to focus on getting out with your drone as often as possible so that you can hone your skills. There is something about an master having practised for 10,000 hours but the good news is that you can get close to proficiency with about 26 hours. If you don’t believe me go check out my other article – how can I get better at flying a drone? – Click here.

Happy drone to and I look forward to seeing you being interviewed by a technology magazine with all of your new skills! 🙂

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton is a writer and YouTuber with a PhD in science. He has written and/or produced videos for Science Alert, COSMOS magazine, and Australia's Science Channel among others. Andy started droneflyingpro.com to share his love and the research of all things drone! He has been a drone pilot for many years and has flown many types of drone. His favorite is still the DJI Mavic Air for the portability and functionality packed into a small and portable drone!