Is it hard to learn to fly a drone? [The ultimate guide]

There is no doubt that drone footage and watching a drone flying around in the sky is awesome. But the question is, how hard is it to achieve some professional quality footage and expert level flying techniques. Is it a case of simply starting up the drone and letting it do its thing, or is it a much more manual process that is fraught with danger? Everyone who buys a drone for the first time has to go through a relatively steep learning curve – but how hard is it really to fly a drone? Especially considering that technology has come on so fast so quickly. Surely drones fly themselves now, right? In this article, we’re going to talk about Is it hard to learn to fly a drone?

Is it hard to fly a drone? With the onset of advanced artificial intelligence technology in consumer-level drones, it is becoming easier to fly a drone within minutes of opening the box. With advances in automated flying technology drones will auto hover, auto stabilize, return to home, and even avoid obstacles during flights. However, if you want to race drones and not crash at every turn there is a lot of practice and skills that you need to build. In many ways flying a drone is like playing chess – you can learn it in minutes but it takes a lifetime to master.

Now,let’s take a look in detail at whether or not it is really easy to fly a drone given all of this new technology.

How long does it take to learn to fly a drone?

As you’ve probably guessed, this question depends on you, your skills, and the experience that you bring to flying a drone. Some students are ready to fly alone within minutes. Other people require many hours of practicing and it may take time with a professional instructor to get everything right. For a camera drones such as that found in the DJI Mavic/Phantom/Spark series they have such a high level of automation and sensors and software that will keep you safe in the air that the majority of the learning is done before you take off. As a new pilot of this type of drone all you have to do is understand the controller and software that you will be using to control the camera and the drone. With a couple of hours of flight time, you’ll be able to fly confidently and get the drone to do exactly what you wanted to do in the air.

If however you want to obtain a commercial license for flying a drone you will require about 40 hours of theory and a minimum of five hours of practical instruction with a trained pilot. An even harder drone to fly is a first-person view (FPV) or racing drone. This type of drone has zero automation and flies incredibly fast. This means that it’s even more likely that you will crash and have incidents that can damage your drone. Even very accomplished competition pilots will have aspects of their flying skills that they will need to improve.

So, the type of drone is very very important!

The cheaper the drone is, the more difficult it is to fly in a controllable and stable way. Some of the cheapest toy drones are very difficult to fly even if you know how to. Each time you pay a little bit more for a drone you are getting more stabilization and advanced automatic flight controls. This makes flying so much nicer, and completely worth the extra money. Although, it is not an absolute failsafe for those who are reckless with their drones.

One of the hardest things to do while flying a drone, is to control the drone as it is flying towards you. That is because all of the directional controls have been reversed and it takes a little bit of brain training to quickly reverse the controls in your mind.

In summary, if you are using a DJI drone you can be up and flying within a matter of minutes but if you want to do much more complicated things with a drone with no automatic flight controls it may take you many many years to become an expert. It all comes down to what you want to do, what you want to learn and how much you want to test yourself and your flying skills. All you have to do is select a drone that will give you the things you want from it.

Let’s take a look at all of the advanced flying automation that is regularly seen in commercial level drones.

Advanced flying automation

Buying a drone with advanced flying automation will allow you to quickly and easily get in the air in a safe and controllable manner. I recommend that you look at the DJI drones as they have been, in my experience, some of the most easy to fly. Here are examples of the types of advanced automatic flying modes you can expect from a good consumer level drone:

  • automatic hovering – this ensures that the drone maintains its altitude and position when you leave the controls alone
  • obstacle avoidance – this uses forward, down, and backwards-facing sensors to avoid obstacles while flying. Some of the more advanced features also include fly around obstacle functions. This gives you a very comfortable flying experience, but it is not 100% fail-proof.
  • Quick shots – quick shots allow you to fly in automated flight patterns that allow you to capture awesome video with your drone. In the DJI series this includes:
    • rocket – your aircraft hovers at a low wide-angle viewpoint and then suddenly shoot upwards like a rocket lifting off into space.
    • dronie – the camera fixes on a subject and then flies backwards and upwards whilst keeping the subject in frame making it perfect for revealing breathtaking landscapes
    • circle – the aircraft keeps the camera focused on a subject in the centre of the frame and circles the subject slowly keeping a constant distance.
    • Helix – the helix start is like the circle but as it circles it flies outwards and upwards in a spiral-like motion.
  • Auto takeoff – auto takeoff allows the drone to take off automatically and it causes it to hover at about 3 m in the air. Perfect for a hands-off start to your flight
  • return to home – return to home is a really awesome feature that allows you to return to your takeoff point as recorded by the GPS location at takeoff. Some drones even take photographs of the takeoff spot so they can land with extra precision.

As you can see, there are a load of automatic features that are getting improved on year after year. Each of these automatic flying features and allows drone pilots to safely and securely fly their drone in a range of conditions. I know I would be lost without some of the features mentioned in this list.

Now, let’s take a look at the things you need to learn to fly a drone safely and quickly.

 

The things you need to learn to fly a drone

To learn to fly a drone safely you will first of all need a wide open space and obviously a drone. Operating early on in wide open spaces or means you can concentrate on the features and flying the drone rather than not crashing into some sort of obstacle. You may also be tempted to fly indoors in your house for example – this will be one of the hardest things you can do, and you risk damaging your walls and other things in the home. Don’t do it!

Also, wind and extreme weather will not be your friend during your first flights. Wait for a day that has relatively low wind (below 15 km an hour) and there is no rain or drizzle forecast.

My first ever flight was in a large sports oval. There were no other people or animals, there were no trees and also no powerlines that I have to be aware of during my flight. During my flight, I went through all of the important features of the drone. I went through all of the advanced flying features, I played about with auto takeoff and landing, and I also played about with the manual controls and joysticks.

It’s important when you first start flying a drone that you do not fly too far out of your zone of capability. Your zone of capability is what you can comfortably achieve with your drone and your goal is to expand it slowly over the course of a few flights.

You also need to be able to identify your current skill level without any bravado or ego telling you you are a better pilot than you are. This will cause you to crash your drone quicker than anything else. Even now, I do not fly my drone in any conditions or situations where I do not feel completely at ease and comfortable.

Drone flying tips

For your first ever flight here are a few of my top drone flying tips that will make your flight much easier for you.

Use a flight simulator if possible

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).

  • DJI Drones simulator – Free, Enterprise, and Energy versions available. It has different training modules that support nearly every drone that they have manufactured.
  • DroneSimPro – $29.99 for Mac and Windows.
  • Real Flight RF8 – $188 for windows
  • 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!

Fly within your (and the drone’s) capacity

Whenever you are planning a flight, or you have just arrived on location, you need to ask yourself if you are flying within the conditions that you are capable of flying. This also includes the conditions that the drone is capable of flying under. That includes air temperature, wind conditions, potential weather changes that will occur during your flight, and any other environmental conditions like updraft from the edge of cliffs etc.

Most commercial drones will handle almost anything that you can throw at them. I have seen some pretty impressive high wind flights that even the smallest of DJI drones are able to handle with relative ease. However, there have been a couple of times where I have turned up to a shooting location and just not felt right about the conditions. Whether it was too gusty or there was a lot of spray coming off the ocean due to the wind direction – I called it off!

You don’t want your ego to be the cause of any expensive mistakes! Therefore, always fly in your, and the drone’s) capacity.

Hover before heading anywhere

When first taking off on your flight it always helps to just hover at head height for as little as thirty seconds to one minute to make sure everything is going well! During this time I am checking for a few things. The first is the sound the drone is making:

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!

Then I’m checking it’s stability.

Does the drone wobble? Is 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. If you want to find out the main reasons that a drone wobbles check out my other article.

Does it hold it’s position? Take your hands off the controller and the drone should hover in position. Does it drift? The GPS signal should keep it 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).

And finally, you should check that the thrust results in a smooth motion. Hover the drone at eye level and ascend the drone as quickly as it will go. You are looking for a smooth, even ascent. The drone will make a fair bit of noise and may drift a little. But a nice even upwards direction is what you are looking for.

Try out all the automatic functions

Even the most advanced flyers can get something from learning all of the advanced features that their drone has. Features like automatic shots, follow me, point of interest and flying by way points – all these could come in useful at some point.

A lot of fellow drone enthusiasts swear by flying the drone manually – which is a great skill to have – but you could be missing out on some easy to get shots by ignoring the features that the drone comes pre-programmed with! Some on my Mavic Air are a little lame – but I love the ease of grabbing a quick dronie with friends!

Practice flying toward yourself

The last drone flying tip is to practice flying towards yourself. If your drone isn’t equipped with headless mode, where the controls are agnostic to the direction the drone is facing, you should spend some time with this mental challenge.

As the drone is facing you the left and right directions get switched which means that it can be challenging to bring the drone into land. The only thing that will get you used to this new way of flying is to spend time doing it! So, head out and try to take some fun selfie shots!

For more awesome drone tips check out my other article the ultimate list of drone tips [30 must now tips]

drone tips header
Click here to go to my ultimate list of drone tips

Practice, practice, practice

So one of the most important things about flying a drone is practising often and in a range of environmental conditions. Practising will do a number of things for your drone flying ability but most importantly it allows you to become more confident. It can take many years to become an expert drone flyer but that doesn’t mean you can improve your skills along the way and have fun.

Here are the things that you need to do to make sure that your practice is beneficial to your drone flying.

  • Practice the fundamentals over and over – working on the fundamental skills such as hovering, flying through enclosed spaces, and other line of sight drills will help you have a base skill to build on. For example figure of eight formation flying and practising flying while the drone is facing towards you are all really important fundamentals.
  • Buy some racing gates – racing gates are one of the best things you can use to practice your flying. They are prefabricated obstacles that are designed to help you practice flying without breaking or damaging your drone. Practice gates are designed to fall over when you hit them that way you never have to worry about hurting your drone beyond a broken propeller.
  • Use a less expensive drone – if you’ve just bought a very expensive drone like the Phantom four pro you may be very scared of crashing it and never push your capability beyond very simple manoeuvres. Consider buying a much less expensive drone for extending your capability without worrying about losing thousands of dollars.

Remember to have fun while you are flying and learning otherwise you will be scared and unlikely to improve your drone flying skills. Now, let’s take a look at one of the easiest drones to fly that is currently on the market.

The easiest drone to fly

The DJI Mavic mini is one of the most impressive drones for its size. It has so many advanced features that your be up and flying within a matter of minutes.Here are the features that I love about it:

  • It’s so small and light that you can take it anywhere with you! – Having to double guess taking your drone with you can make you not fly a drone at all. This drone is small enough to fit in your suitcase, pack, or day bag – so you will never have to leave without it!
  • It’s really inexpensive – you don’t need to spend thousands on a drone to get the drone experience. This drone is inexpensive so if the worst comes to the worst and you lose your drone (or it gets stolen) then it won’t sting as much as if you were to lose a drone worth thousands of dollars.
  • 30 minutes of flight time – this is as long as you’d get from much more expensive drones. I can normally fit in a couple of flights with a battery that lasts about 30 minutes. That means if you are visiting a couple of places worthy of a drone flight during the day you won’t miss out! Also, with a second battery – you’ll be able to capture so much more!
  • Advanced flying features – I love that these DJI drones auto land. They all have a “return to home” function that gives the drone pilot such incredible peace of mind. Phone dies? No problem, the drone will return to its take-off spot safely! Want this drone to follow you? Do a drone selfie? It’s all in this advanced little package!

DJI Mavic mini

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 only issue with this drone is that it has no avoidance senses, That means you will have to be extra careful if squeezing it through tight spaces. Keep a line of sight and this shouldn’t be too much of an issue for the beginner drone flyer.

Conclusion

So, is it hard to learn to fly a drone? No, not at all. If you choose the right drone for your flying experience it has never been as easy as it currently is to fly a drone. There are plenty of consumer midrange drones that allow you to focus on the flight and not things like remaining stationary and combating wind conditions. There are plenty of drones with advanced artificial intelligence automated flying technology that it has never been easier to fly a drone and capture some amazing footage.

If you want to extend your capability look into the range of first-person view drone racers and join a local drone racing club to really push the limits of your flying capability and skills. There are plenty of options for every skill level – and that’s what makes owning a drone so much fun.

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!