If you're new to flying a drone, there is a lot to learn. I wanted to share my practical advice that can save you time and money. This is the advice I would give myself if I were to go back in time. I would hopefully have helped prevent some frustration and improved my ability to create!
1. Plan How to Launch and Catch Your Drone: Sailboat, Snow, Hood of a Car, Hand Catching, Etc
When I first bought a drone I didn’t think much about how to launch and land it. I had seen a bunch of videos online about how to fly it and basic controls but didn’t realize that they can sometimes be tricky to launch/land. One of the first outings to go fly was near my home in Colorado after a snow storm. I quickly realized that you need a dry flat surface to calibrate the drone. Everything was covered in snow and it was too soft to allow me to set the drone down. I ended up launching it from my camera backpack since I hadn’t practiced how to hand launch.
Additionally, if you’ve stored the drone for a few days, you’ll likely need to calibrate the compass which requires turning the drone in circles away from metallic objects (i.e. can’t be done near your car). Lastly, when you are calibrated and ready to go, you’ll need a flat space free of obstructions. Even low grass will turn your drone into a lawnmower instead of an aircraft. If you’re thinking of launching from a moving object like a boat, remember that launching is the easy part, landing is much more difficult especially if you’re by yourself. Make sure to have someone else who can assist in these tricky situations!
- Plan your takeoff/landing spot (or buy a landing pad)
- Calibrate the drone's compass before leaving home that day
- Have a flat/dry/stable surface to start/calibrate the drone on even when hand launching
- Learn to hand launch and catch your drone (a thick glove can protect your fingertips from the props)
- Have a backup plan: learn to launch from your camera backpack
- Launching/landing on moving objects like sailboats is extremely difficult
2. Check Your Flight Restrictions Before Going to a New Place
This simple tip could have saved me a lot of time. Just after I got a drone I was flying in new areas a lot. I would drive somewhere new and want to get some aerial footage/photos only to realize that it was in a restricted area. Before heading out to a new location, check for flight restrictions in the DJI app or one of the other drone apps. You’ll be able to see if there are any restrictions or authorization areas in the location you plan to fly. Often when I am planning a road trip I’ll scan through the planned route so I know where I can and can’t fly. There are also sometimes temporary flight restrictions that pop up unexpectedly so be aware and follow the rules. If we can all be law-abiding pilots it will hopefully help prevent future restrictions from being imposed.
- Use an app to check for restricted areas
- Do a quick Google search for local restrictions
3. Know the Rules, Get Licensed
This one is pretty simple. Flying drones is a ton of fun and there are relatively few restrictions at this point. If we can all follow the rules, my hope is that we can continue to fly with relative freedom. As more people violate the rules and cause problems, it causes local and federal agencies to think that imposing more restrictions will create more order. One of the best ways to learn the rules is to get your FAA Part 107 license. This will allow you to fly commercially (i.e. have people pay you for drone work) but it is also a great way to get familiar with the rules. If you’re only flying as a hobby, at least plan to watch a few YouTube videos explaining the basics. Lastly, please fly responsibly. Think of how your actions affect others and you’ll likely make good choices.
- Pros: Get your part 107 license
- Hobbyists: watch some videos to learn the basic rules
4. Expect the Unexpected: Get a Less Expensive Drone First
This is one thing that continues to surprise me. When I first bought a drone, I picked up a used Mavic Pro on craigslist for really cheap. It had been crashed several times and repaired. It was pretty much fully functional when I bought it for a few hundred dollars, but because I bought it for such a deal, I didn’t worry as much about crashing it. This allowed me to learn in a low-pressure environment as opposed to stressing about crashing a new $1,500 drone.
Inevitably I did crash multiple times (several were not my fault). It allowed me to find my limits and know what was I could and couldn’t get away with. Luckily, all the damage was easily repaired and I learned how to fix a few things myself.
After a few dozen flights I realized that strange things sometimes happen with drones. They are complicated systems and involve a lot of technology working together. Inevitably, there will be issues. The most common issue is losing signal connection with the drone. Sometimes it comes right back without an issue but I’ve also relied on the return to home feature.
All this to say, plan for the unexpected to happen.
- Consider buying a cheap drone then upgrading
- Set your return to home altitude for each flight — ensure it won’t hit anything
- Plan what you will do when you lose connection
- Plan on how you will recover your drone when it does crash
5. Plan Your Flight
Once flying your drone gets more comfortable, you’ll want to think about how to maximize each battery to get the most creative and interesting content. With a little experience, you’ll learn the types of shots that you like to capture and plan a sequence into your flight so that you can get as many interesting angles as possible. This is where knowledge of light and composition will be combined with your ability to visualize an aerial perspective. A well-planned and coordinated flight is what will separate the amateur from the professional drone pilot and this tip is the most time-consuming to master. It's tempting to immediately launch your drone and fly up to 100 ft above the ground but often it is more interesting to stay low to the ground. As you learn your style and preference, you'll begin to see the images/videos in your mind before you take off. This often leads to the most dynamic content.
- Visualize your composition and flight path before launching
- Master simple movements before attempting complex motions
- Fine-tune the responsiveness of the drone to get smooth movements
- Fly in good light (sunrise/sunset)
- Try flying low instead of high
6. Learn Your Advanced Controls
As you get more advanced with your drone skills, you’ll likely start flying in more challenging situations. Examples include flying through trees, over water, from a moving boat, in windy conditions, etc. These situations can lead to unexpected drone behavior so it’s helpful to have a full understanding of the complex controls. The most important things to know are how to turn obstacle avoidance on/off, what directions your drone will sense obstacles, how to do an emergency stop, how to access other flight modes to overcome high winds, how to find a good landing spot if you can’t get back to where you launched, and how to fly very well manually if your drone loses GPS signal and wants to drift away.
Mastering all these skills before you need them will help you avoid stressful situations. The last thing you want to do is frantically search the menu for how to turn off obstacle avoidance when your battery is low and you need to get past some trees in order to land. Trust me I’ve been there and I wish I had practiced beforehand!
- Master the controls — obstacle avoidance, emergency stop, etc
- Know where your proximity sensors are
- Know how to reconnect your controller in case of signal loss
Hopefully, these tips will help you to have the best experience possible when flying your drone! I have thoroughly enjoyed flying because it’s so fun and because it allows you to access nearly any perspective you can imagine for photos and videos. There are so many cool drones on the market at very affordable prices these days that there is no reason not to get into this fun sector of photography!