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How to Fly a Drone Without Looking Like an Idiot

First tip: unless it’s an indoor drone, don’t fly it until you get outside.

Sung Han

Consumer drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are on the rise — a December 2015 New York Times article estimated that around 2 million would be sold worldwide in 2016. That means swaths of flying robots are up in the skies, and, unfortunately, often at the control of the not-so-properly-trained pilots. Adam Juniper knows this better than most. Juniper is the author of The Complete Guide to Drones ($12+) and is the creator of TameSky.com, a website dedicated to flying multicopter drones. He’s an authority on the field, and his most recent book, The Drone Pilot’s Handbook, hits shelves May 3. It’s aimed at helping those new fliers learn — well, everything. Juniper’s book has amateurs covered, from the basics, like how drones actually fly and simple piloting maneuvers, to more expert-level skills, like performing flips or taking professional-quality aerial photos. To grasp some quick takeaways, we asked Juniper to give us a few tips, both novice and expert, on how to fly your drone better. – Tucker Bowe

1Practice first. Almost all drones are set up to fly using what old-school RC-geeks call “Mode 2” (not to be confused with flight modes). This just means that the left stick on the controller controls throttle and yaw (rotation), while the left stick handles pitch (forward/backward motion) and roll (sideways motion).

If you’ve never flown any kind of RC craft before, the best way to get the hang of it is with a simulator. Some drones, too, offer built in simulator software, including the DJI Phantom, Inspire 1 and 3DR Solo. However, the classic tip from any enthusiast is simply: buy a small indoor drone, like a Hubsan X4, and learn using that.

2Check your local and national regulations. If you’re in the USA, chances are you’ll need to register your aircraft with the FAA, unless it’s super lightweight. Wherever you are, make sure you’re a long way from an airport, and never fly over people who don’t know you’re there. Yosemite (and indeed every National Park) is out too – Teddy Roosevelt was clearly no fan of rotor-craft.

Drone Modes 101


Unlike traditional model aircraft, a drone is held aloft by its flight-control computer. And like any computer, it can easily be asked to change modes and behave differently (as opposed to RC controller modes, which might be permanent). It’s vital to know what mode you’re in before you take off:

GPS Loiter: While you’re flying, the drone will respond to your commands, and if you release the sticks it will remain in exactly the same spot – height and position.

Atti Mode: The aircraft will maintain its “attitude” (and altitude, come to that), meaning that it’ll drift in the direction the wind pushes it, but will stay in the air.

Full Manual: The pilot must constantly vary the throttle control to keep the aircraft in the sky, as well as taking control of heading and direction. Phantom owners first encountering a racer drone, which only supports manual flight, can sometimes be very surprised. The only thing the flight computer will do is keep the aircraft upright.

Return to home: The drone will automatically fly at a certain height until it is directly above the take off point, then land.

3Size matters. It’s incredibly tempting, right when you open the box, to power up and attempt to hover right in your front room. But unless your drone is designed for indoor use (small, with guards around the propellers), you’re going to run out of space fast. A drone like the Phantom will blow enough air to create eddies, which will suck the drone toward ceilings (and ceiling fans), and as soon as it touches something, it’ll crash. Remember, too, that indoors there’s no GPS, so even if it has that feature, it won’t just magically hover in place. So don’t fly your outdoor drone inside.

4The drone dance. Most drones feature a “magnetometer” (compass) that helps the aircraft fly easily, but that’ll only work if you calibrate it. The drone’s instruction booklet will tell you how – you’ll have to stand in one spot, outdoors and away from electrical or radio towers, and rotate the aircraft in a number of different ways until its lights tell that it’s ready to go. If you don’t calibrate it, not only could you crash, but important features like the fail-safe return-to-home option could be at risk.

5The right drone. Not all drones are created equal. At first, everyone looked to the amazing “flying camera” category, and it seemed logical that developments (better seniors, better lenses) would continue that trend. But the self-build hobbyists wanted, and created, an all-new kind of sport: drone racing, through hoops and around obstacles. Just as a family SUV won’t be great on the race track but can shift a lot of gear, you’ll want to pick a small drone to race – a 220 or 250 (referring to the motor-to-motor measurement in millimeters).

6Slow and steady. If you’re making an aerial video, slow, fluid movements are important. Make sure your drone is fitted with a motorized gimbal to keep the camera stable. Watch other people’s drone shots, and see what you like; slowly orbiting your subject or moving the aircraft to reveal a beautiful landscape view are shots that always work well. Don’t just use automatic “follow” modes because they’re there. Be in creative control of your shot.

7Win the race. Perhaps because of the initial stigma that drones had, pilots have come together to form a uniquely welcoming and positive community who share knowledge, help each other with problems and organize meet-ups. If racing is your thing, participating in events is also the only way you’ll win the big bucks, like current Drone Prix champion Luke Bannister, who picked up a prize of $250,000.

The advice above comes from Juniper, whose book The Drone Pilot’s Handbook comes out May 3.

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