If you have never flown a radio-controlled aircraft before buying your first drone, there will be a lot you need to learn before taking to the sky. While modern drone are easy to fly thanks to all the automation built into them, you still need to know how to handle things when those systems fail for some reason. Here are some practical steps you can take to get up to speed with the art of drone flight.
Get a Simulator
In the RC world, software simulators are a mainstay. With the rise of drones, most popular RC simulators have a wide range of drone models included in the selection. I recommend you get a sim that also comes with a simulated radio controller.
You can out as many hours into the sim and crash as much as you like. Practice maneuvers you want to learn in the safety of the sim before you try it in the real world. Once you can do what you want in the sim safely, you can go and try it in the real world. Sims are never 100% like real flight, but it will get you most of the way there.
Use a Cheap Drone to Practice
Don’t learn to fly using your multi-thousand dollar camera drone. Buy a few cheap toy drones instead and cut your teeth on them. The flight controls are exactly the same and small drones are actually harder to fly than heaver, more stable ones. So if you can fly your nano or mini drone well, you should have no issue controlling a big expensive drone responsibly.
Don’t Learn to Fly in Headless Mode
Even the cheapest drones now offer “headless” mode. This meant that the drone interprets flight control relative to where the transmitter is. If you pitch forward on the controller, the drone moves away from you, regardless of which way it’s pointing.
This feature exists because one of the hardest things for pilots to do is deal with control inversion. If your drone’s nose if pointing towards you, for example, then rolling left on the control will make the drone move to your right.
In my case, I overcame this by always watching the nose of my craft and visualizing my inputs relative to that. In other words, I imagine what my inputs would be if I were sitting in the cockpit. Everyone has different strategies, but concentrating on the nose helped me get over it quickly.
I don’t recommend that you learn to fly using headless mode. Use it as much as you like once you can fly properly, but it’s not going to do you any favors in the long run if you can only fly this way.
There are a few core maneuvers that ever pilot should know how to do. You can usually look these up on YouTube to see how they are done.
First, practice taking off, hovering and then landing again. Yes, this is boring. However, you should do this and only this until you can do it in your sleep. You need to have the ability to stop and land as easily as breathing, in case anything goes wrong during your flight.
Left- and right-hand circles should be next on the menu. Being able to fly in a circle helps you learn everything you need to know about turning your craft, as well as some of the inversion changes that happen as the nose comes at you. An advanced form of this is the banking turn, but leave that for later.
Finally, the last important basic maneuver you should learn is the nose-in hover. With the drone facing you, practice taking off and letting the drone hover in one spot. Practice correcting its drift while doing the nose in hover. This will help you become proficient with control inversion. You can also practice this with the drone’s left or right side facing you.
A Note On Licenses
In the USA, all drones between 0.55 and 55 pounds have to be registered with the FAA. However, if you are only flying for fun then there’s nothing more you need to do as a pilot. Just know that by registering you are responsible for the drone and its adherence to FAA regulations.
If however you want to fly drones for a living, you need a commercial drone pilot’s licence. This involves booking a test and paying $150 to secure it. Then you’ll need to study for at least two weeks. It’s a good idea to pay for a professional prep course too. They often include a money back guarantee if you don’t pass on your first try. Don’t underestimate the test either, it has much of the same content as a proper airman certification test. You’ll need to retake it every two years as well!