Ah, the holidays. A time for hot chocolate, gift-giving, ugly sweaters, and… drones?
Yep, just last year the FAA predicted as many as one million drones sold during the 2015 holiday season in the United States alone. And drones are still topping 2016 gift guides, signs that the technology has gone mainstream.
Chances are that you, too, will be unwrapping a drone in the coming weeks.
New to drones? If you’re a first-time remote pilot, ramp up your flying skills with these essential tips:
1. Start Small
This guide is intended for toy drones, not drones over .55 lbs.
Toy drones are the best place to start for beginners. Not only do they fall below most minimum weight thresholds for airspace regulations, .55 lbs., but they’re also much easier and safer to fly (and crash). Toy drones are generally characterized by a thin plastic frame, brushed motors, and limited controllers.
Also, strongly consider buying or gifting drones equipped with a “headless mode.” This means that the drone keeps track of its own orientation, making it much easier to fly.
2. Make Room
Once your toy drone is fully charged, find a space indoors that is clear of any fragile or wobbly items like vases. A living room or big bedroom should be plenty.
(If you choose to fly outdoors, check AirMap for local airspace conditions, rules, and regulations. Also, be hyper-aware of wind, which can have a big impact on the performance of your toy drone.)
Turn your drone on and bind it to the controller. This means connecting the drone to the controller that you will use to fly it. Sometimes this can happen automatically. Alternatively, instructions can be found in your drone manual.
Place your drone on the ground in the middle of the room, clear of any nearby obstacles.
Stand behind your drone at a safe distance. If you’re not certain of the front or back of your drone, look for where the battery goes or plugs in. Always check your owner’s manual to be sure.
3. Go Slow
The key to good flying is in extra-small, teeny-weeny micro-movements.
Increase the throttle so slightly that the blades just barely start to move. For most drones, the throttle is usually on the left. In rare cases, it could be on the right. Consult your manual to confirm your drone’s orientation.
As you slowly add power, you want the drone to only barely get off the ground. Slowly! (Even slower than that!)
If done correctly, the drone will start bobbing up and down. This is due to a phenomenon known as ground effect.
If you start to lose control, don’t panic. Just cut the throttle, and the drone will glide to landing. Trying to “recover” often leads to high-impact crashes, especially with beginner pilots. Toy drones can usually “soft-crash” many, many times before taking on substantial damage.
4. Bust a Move
Now that you’ve got your drone bobbing up and down, let’s get moving!
To move in any direction, lightly tap push the joystick opposite the throttle (right stick in the U.S.) in the direction you’d like to go and then immediately return the stick to center. Watch the drone drag across the room while hovering at the same height.
If your drone feels like it’s moving in the wrong direction, you are probably not standing directly behind it. Attempting to operate a drone from the front or side is like driving a car with the steering wheel and pedals reversed. Orientation is critical for performance.
Return your drone back to the center of the room by tapping the joystick in the reverse direction. Continue practicing that until you feel in command of the drone’s flight.
Once you have mastered the art of moving the drone in different directions, you may be ready to add a tiny bit more power. Keeping your drone between knee and chest-height is a good altitude for learning. Its enough space to experiment while still preventing major crashes and obstacle incursions.
5. Get Fancy
Bored with the basics? Here are a few more tricks to try out.
- Try flying to and then hovering over a spot on the ground.
- Set up a fun obstacle and challenge (I’ve landed drones in coffee cups, on top of chairs, etc.)
- Fly in circles around a fixed, inanimate object.
- Try to do flips. For this, you’ll need lots of space and high ceilings. It’s possible!
Like most things, the more time you spend flying your drone, the better you’ll be at control and maneuverability. Toy drones are a great option for aspiring pilots of most ages and budgets.
The goal is to master the basics before upgrading to a drone with more power, weight, and capability to ensure your safety and the safety of those around you.
Author Brian Wheeler is an AirMap engineer, certified remote pilot, private pilot, and drone aerobatics enthusiast.