What is one key return on a drone? [Guide and tips]

One of the hottest features you can get on a drone is the one key return or the return to home feature. I was amazed when I first purchased my drone, and I was able to quickly recall my drone to the takeoff spot with a single press of the button.

One key return allows the drone pilot to recall the drone from its current location to the GPS location recorded at takeoff. The drone will return at a set height and automatically land in the takeoff zone.

Some drones are better at precision landing automatically than others. This article will go through everything you need to know about one key return, the best settings for your return to home height, and the best drones with the return to home feature.

What does one key return /auto return mean on a drone?

One key return means that you can push a single hardware button on the remote control or a software button on the app, to recall the drone to the GPS location it captured upon takeoff.

The hardware button on my DJI drone remote control looks like this:

One key return on a drone [FULL Guide and tips]

When I push the button during a flight, the drone will automatically return to the takeoff location after adjusting its height to the return to home height that has been set in the software.

While performing the return to home, it will play this sound:

Most consumer photography drones will be able to navigate obstructions as they return home.

Should the drone encounter an obstacle that it cannot manoeuvre around itself, it will simply hover in place, and you will have two manually move the drone around the obstacle.

How does return to home work?

Returns home is a safety feature that will bring your drone back to a safe, accessible landing location at the press of a button.

When a drone takes off, it will set its takeoff GPS location as its “Home point”.

The drone will continuously analyse its GPS accordingly and use a compass to determine the direction it is currently pointing. You need to ensure that your compass is calibrated every time the software asks.

When you push the return to home button, or the drone automatically starts to return home, it will follow a straight line back to the takeoff location.

Some drones can detect obstacles with their vision sensors and move to a safe height to get around the obstacle. This feature is becoming more and more common in drones as the technology improves and gets less expensive.

Most returns to home drones allow you to capture the aerial footage as you are flying back to the takeoff spot.

There are also two important features and settings with a return to home – precision landing and return to home height.

Precision landing

Some drones enable precision landing due to high-resolution downward-facing cameras.

When the precision landing mode is activated, the drone will take photographs of the takeoff location which will help assist the drone in landing accurately using its visual sensing system.

To make the precision landing more accurate, you can use a high contrast landing on the takeoff location or use an area with very distinctive features such as concrete pads for distinctive patterns.

What is RTH height?

An important setting on your drone is the return to home height.

The return to home height is the height at which the drone will ascend or descend before moving in a straight line to the takeoff location.

One key return on a drone [FULL Guide and tips]
How to set Return to Home height on DJI drone

Ensuring that your return to home height is set correctly will ensure that your drone can fly without to the landing zone without encountering any obstructions.

I have set my return to home height at 60 m, allowing me to avoid any large trees in my area and any electrical poles or cables.

When you are setting your return to home height, you should consider these things:

  • largest species of tree in your city
  • highest electrical cables
  • the highest building for urban environments
  • any tall obstruction in the area.

When return to home is activated

There are several situations when returning home, and one key return is activated. These include when the signal is lost between the remote control and the drone and on a low battery.

Here is a complete rundown on the three ways return to home is activated and when one key return can work in your favour.

One key return on a drone [FULL Guide and tips]

Manually

The first and most obvious time the return to home is activated is when the drone is told to return by the pilot.

There are two ways to manually recall a drone, either with the hardware button on the remote control or with the software button found on the on-screen display of your smartphone or remote control with a screen.

How do I return with one key?

Returning to the takeoff location with the one key return is very simple, and there are a few situations under which you may want to return automatically:

  • if you need to turn your attention to other things
  • your smart device has run out of battery
  • the drone has stopped responding to the majority of commands from the remote control (poor connection)
  • high wind conditions

you have two options should you want to return automatically.

  1. The first is to press the hardware button often found on the remote control.
  2. The second is to press the software button on the screen of your smart device.

Both will have the same symbol and perform the same function.

Sometimes a confirmation screen will ensure that you intend to return the drone to the takeoff location and that you didn’t accidentally push either of these buttons by mistake.

Signal is lost

as you are flying, the drone will constantly monitor the signal strength between the remote control and the drone.

Should there be an issue with the connection and the signal is completely lost, the drone will hover for a minute or two before returning to the takeoff spot.

In today’s drone market, you can often go up to 10 km away from the remote control. The maximum verified independent range was 11 km achieved by the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom. You can check the distance on this YouTube video.

Modern drones can communicate in noisy, electromagnetic environments with competing Wi-Fi and mobile signals.

Low battery

The last way a drone may automatically decide to return home is when the battery is running low.

Modern drones constantly monitor battery level and the amount of charge required to return to the home point.

Should your drone’s calculations predict that you will run out of battery before returning to the takeoff location, the drone will start to head home automatically.

You can cancel this automatic behaviour relatively easily by cancelling the return to home using the hardware button on the remote control or the button in the software.

Cancel this behaviour at your own risk, as drones can easily land short and in undesirable locations, including water. The calculations do not consider the extra battery required to fight against a strong headwind.

Who is the auto return to home best for?

The safety feature of modern drones can be used for various circumstances.

I always like to fly my drone and practice the automatic return home to be familiar with the way the drone acts during execution.

Whether you are a nervous flyer, drone fisherman, or distracted, the one key return can be a perfect function for ensuring your drone returns safely.

One key return on a drone [FULL Guide and tips]

Nervous flyers

I have met drone pilots who only land using the one key return.

Unfortunately, this has landed some of them in hot water (literally).

I was on a boat trip during a vacation to Lord Howe Island in Australia. The pilot utilised their drone’s return to home feature whilst on the boat. Unfortunately, the boat had drifted to one side, causing the drone to start to descend into the water.

They did not know how to cancel the feature, and the divemaster had to jump into the water to catch the drone.

The drone would have returned safely to the appropriate location in every other circumstance.

Nervous flyers can over-rely on the one key return feature of the drone, so remembering to practice manual return and using the one key return sparingly is an important skill to develop.

Fishing drones

When using a drone for fishing and bait drop, you may want to return the drone to the takeoff area.

Utilising the one key return makes perfect sense when you want to turn your attention directly to feeling for bites at the end of the line after dropping the bait into the water.

If you want to know more about the best fishing rig to catch more fish, check out the full article where I go through the fishing rigs that you should know about for catching more fish while using your drone.

drone fishing rig

Distracted pilots

While flying your drone, many distractions pop up.

From other people interested in the drone to wildlife and other distractions, there are times when you may wish to allow the drone to return home while you deal with something much more pressing.

I have never had a situation where I needed to take my full attention away from my drone while flying home. However, knowing that my drone can return to the home point GPS location gives me a massive sense of calm should buy need to press that button.

Best drones with return to home or one key return

Drones are packing more and more features into small and affordable form factors.

It is commonplace for consumer drones to have an automatic return to home and one key return function as part of their standard suite of artificial intelligence features.

Here are all of the best drones with return to home or one key return feature that you should consider.

DJI Mavic Mini 2

The DJI mini 2 is lightweight, weighing less than 249 grammes, making it suitable for travel and avoiding some of the red tape necessary in some countries. Drones weighing less than 250 grammes can be flown without a licence in some places.

Despite its small size, the DJI mini 2 comes with a variety of strong flight features and software. It boasts intelligent flying features including a smart return to home, automated takeoff, accurate hovering, and all of the famous DJI flight modes.

DJI Mavic 2S

The camera’s 1-inch sensor makes it excellent for producing stunning photographs and videos. It was designed to be the perfect drone for on-the-go producers, and DJI has delivered once again. It is compact and lightweight, weighing less than 600 grammes.

The camera can shoot at 30 frames per second in 5.4K and 60 frames per second in 4K, making it ideal for those epic slow-motion landscape shots.

Autel EVO Nano+

This drone comes in a nano+ and regular nano version.

The nano + sports a 0.8-inch CMOS sensor that can take 50-megapixel photographs. The nano sports a 48-megapixel camera with a 12-inch CMOS sensor. The three-axis gimbal on both variants of this drone ensures ultra-smooth shots and movies.

It can fly for up to 28 minutes.

This drone has the same characteristics as the Evo Lite and will allow you to travel comfortably while still recording some fantastic footage.

Summary

This article has been through everything you need to know about one key return and the details of the feature that sometimes go unexplored.

Every mid-range consumer-level drone will have this feature and is even popping up in the budget range of drones.

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!