If you've spent a little time flying your drone and have mastered the basics, advanced drills can help bring your flying skills to the next level. Even if you feel like a pretty good pilot, drills keep your skills sharp.
Nowadays, most drones have preprogrammed options for flying advanced maneuvers. Some of the more common include orbits, selfies, subject tracking, and flyaways. DJI calls these intelligent flight modes. While these options make our lives easier, it's always a good idea to try doing them manually.
I almost always use intelligent flight modes when I film vacant land for my drone service company. Sometimes, especially when winds are high, the drone refuses to allow me to use these features. Orbits, for example, will only complete 20% of the rotation and then say an obstacle is blocking the path when there is nothing but sky around the drone. In these situations, I am forced to fly manually. Thankfully I keep up with my drills, so flying an orbit without the drone's help is still pretty easy.
So, here are a few advanced drills to help you become a more proficient pilot.
Drill # 1: The Orbit
In an orbit, you stay fixed on a given point within the field of view as the drone flies in a circle around that point. When flying an orbit manually, the two sticks on the remote are placed in opposite directions. So, if the left stick is moved to the left, the right would be moved to the right and vice versa.
On the surface, it looks like this is a very easy move, but keeping the image fluid and free of jerks, bumps, or breaks in the orbit sounds easier than it is. Factors such as the wind determine how steady your orbit will be. When the drone flies an orbit, the computer makes split-second corrections to each rotor for stability. When flying manually, those corrections are on you.
Try completing several orbits at various radiuses, starting small and moving to orbits further away from the focal point. The more you practice these, the easier they will become.
Drill # 2: Figure 8
Think of a figure 8 as two side-by-side circles. As the drone flies the figure 8 pattern, it will always face the direction it is traveling. Start by placing two cones (or similar markers) about 100 feet apart. Increase the altitude of the drone to about eye level.
Fly the drone in the pattern of an 8, with the cones acting as the center points of the two circles that make up the 8. It is important to remember that the 8 doesn't need to be perfect. The point of this exercise is to use both sticks on the remote to fly a specific pattern.
Fly the pattern several times until it feels natural. For an added challenge, try flying the pattern while keeping the drone facing a single direction, such as always facing forward or always looking left.
Drill # 3: Forward/Back Left/Right Tiers
If you saw last week's article on beginner drills, you might recall the forward/back left/right. If not, the steps are as follows.
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.
When adding tiers to make this a more advanced drill, use the left stick to increase or decrease the altitude in 25 foot increments when you hit each corner. If you really want to get the most out of this, try increasing continuously as you move to the first cone. Then decrease continuously as you move to the next. Repeat this increasing and decreasing altitude pattern as you move from cone to cone, and try to make it as fluid as possible.
Drill # 4: Manual Active Track
Active track modes are great for following people, vehicles, and some animals. Unfortunately, there are times when the software just won't stay on target. You either need to give up the shot or follow manually with the drone.
Without practice, manually following a target can produce shaky videos that give the viewer whiplash or a migraine. Keeping the feed steady with the subject as the focal point is easier said than done, especially if you have not practiced it without the help of intelligent flight modes.
Find a subject you would like to track. Getting their permission is always best to avoid privacy concerns. If it is a person, have them move about while alternating between walking and running in different directions. Vehicles are easier to follow as they are typically confined to roads, trails, or waterways. Keep an eye on the road they are on and what lies ahead. This will help you make smoother flight corrections as their path is a little more predictable.
While tracking the subject, ask yourself where you are having difficulty following them. Is it when speed changes? When they turn in a different direction? If you are not sure, review your video files after the flight. Take notes from your videos and work on areas where the film wasn’t smooth. With a bit of practice, this one becomes second nature.
Drill # 5: Freestyle
As commercial drone pilots, there is almost no limit to the type of work we can do. I spend most of my time filming vacant land, but you may focus on luxury real estate, cell tower inspections, or something else. For this drill, design a series of exercises that best support the work you spend most of your time doing.
When designing this exercise, start by considering the standard maneuvers that are inherent in your run-of-the-mill gigs. With vacant land parcels, I fly a lot of orbits and flyovers at various altitudes. Sometimes I shoot low to the ground FPV-type videos of flying through the desert. So, for me, I would add those maneuvers to this drill. Be creative, make it challenging, but keep it safe.
Advanced drills are for anyone ready to take their skills beyond the beginner level. Whether you are relatively new or a seasoned pro, practice drills help keep your skills sharp. They may seem tedious, but investing time in these exercises is well worth the effort. Stay safe out there, and happy flying!
Article Written by David Daly
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