No one is born knowing how to fly a drone. Like almost everything in life, someone who already knows must teach us how to do things.
The first DJI drone I purchased was a Phantom 3 Standard. While the drone wasn’t expensive compared to most drones out now, it seemed like a lot to spend on a flying camera at the time. I decided to bite the bullet and purchase it even though I felt it was a lot of money for a drone.
If you have ever bought a DJI drone, you know their instructions are pretty basic. Additionally, drones back then lacked many standard safety features. At the time, drones didn’t have the kind of obstacle avoidance sensors they have now, so flying them was somewhat of an art form.
After some fumbling around, I powered up the drone and manipulated the sticks on the remote. Within 30 seconds, I slammed my drone into the side of the garage. Thankfully, I only broke a few propellers. The camera, gimbal, and drone were fine. I then quickly found someone who could teach me how to fly.
If you are just getting your Part 107 and have never flown a drone, fear not, you are not alone. I have over 300 hours of commercial flight time, and I start by slamming my drone into a wall. Starting with a flight simulator or having someone help you is the best method for learning how to fly. That being said, if you want to start independently, you can still be successful.
When I teach people how to fly drones, I am often asked how many hours of flight time it takes to become proficient. Everyone is different, but you should be pretty damn good after 40 hours. That may seem like a lot to some people, especially with how automated drones are becoming, but after that many hours, you will have run into most situations you will encounter while droning.
A great way to collect flight time is with flying drills. Though they may sometimes seem tedious, flight drills help develop muscle memory and comfortability with controlling your drone. Let’s review a few of the best drills for beginners.
A couple of notes before we get to our list. First, always remember to fly safely. If you are learning to fly, you are more likely to make a mistake. So, ensure you are in a wide open space away from trees, buildings, and especially people. Second, avoid panicking if your drone goes where you do not want it to. When in doubt, take your fingers off the sticks. The drone will stop moving and stay in place. Take a deep breath and pilot the drone to safety. Now that that’s out of the way let’s get to the drills.
Practice Drill # 1: Up And Around
The first drill is designed to familiarize you with the remote's left stick. This stick has two functions. If you move the stick forward or back, you will raise and lower the level (altitude) of the drone. Pushing the stick forward increases altitude and moving it towards you will decrease altitude. Moving the stick to the left or right affects yaw (or turning left or right while staying in the same spot).
Start this drill by looking up and making sure there are no overhead obstructions. Once the drone is powered up and ready for takeoff, Push the left stick forward. The drone will start to move straight up. Raise the drone to about 25 feet. Once at 25 feet, move the left stick to the left and right. Notice how the drone hovers in the same spot and spins left and right. Now, move the left stick towards you and watch the drone lower back to the ground.
Practice Drill # 2: Forward/Back, Left/Right
The second drill is designed to familiarize you with the remote's right stick. This stick controls roll (moving left and right) and pitch (moving forward and back).
Start by bringing the drone to a height of 25 feet. Now, push the right stick forward. The drone will move away from you in a forward direction (wherever the front of the drone is facing). Now pull the stick back towards you. The drone will move in the reverse direction. Next, move the right stick to the left. The drone will fly to the left. Moving the stick to the right will (you guessed it) move the drone to the right.
Practice Drill # 3: The Square
In this next drill, we will combine using the left and right sticks to fly the drone. Start by getting four small orange cones (or similar objects) and arranging them into a square on the ground. Each cone of the square should be approximately 50 feet apart.
Place your drone just outside of the square. Using the left stick, raise the drone about 25 feet and hover above the nearest cone, with your drone pointing towards the square's next corner. Push the right stick forward until the drone is above the next cone. Once there, move the right stick to the left or right (whichever direction is the next cone) and fly in that direction until you are above the next cone. Now pull the right stick towards you, so the drone moves in reverse to the next cone. Finally, use the right stick to move the drone left or right to the cone you started at.
The outline you fly will be the same as the cone square below the drone. Fly this pattern several times until you can draw the square without mistakes using the right stick.
Practice Drill # 4: The Yaw Square
The Yaw Square is almost identical to the square drill except for one exception. After moving forward from the first cone to the second, you will use the left stick to turn the drone to the left or right instead of using the right stick. It helps to imagine the right stick can only move the drone forward and back for this drill.
So, once the drone is above the first cone, use the right stick to move it forward until it is above the second cone. Once there, use the left stick to spin the drone left or right so the front of the drone points to the next cone. Now press the right stick forward. When you reach a new cone, use the left stick to rotate the drone and continue the pattern. If done correctly, the drone will always face forward as it moves to the next cone. Repeat the pattern several times.
Practice Drill # 5: Return To Home
This one is basic but could mean the difference between getting your drone back in one piece or losing it forever. Most drones now have a return-to-home function. If the drone loses connection or runs low on battery life, it will turn towards the home point (usually where it took off) and head back there before the battery dies.
Each drone is different but look on the manufacturer's site or Google for instructions on setting the return-to-home altitude. Once you have set this height, practice sending the drone out a reasonable distance but still within visual sight and use the return-to-home function. Keep an eye on the drone and be ready to take control of the sticks if needed.
When starting as a drone pilot, these drills will help develop the basic skills needed to succeed. Our next article will review more advanced drills as you learn to master the sticks. Stay safe out there, and happy flying!
Article Written by David Daly