So you are ready for your first Drone flight??
You have bought your first drone, congratulations, welcome to a whole new world of fun and exploration. But now what? This article provides some tips on how best to prepare yourself for your first flight!
Taking to the sky has never been easier! Drones, remote-controlled pilotless aircraft, UAVs (or whatever else they may be called), are more popular than ever. Drone manufacturers such as DJI are making access to drones for the consumer mass market commonplace by releasing drones packed full of the latest technology at relatively low costs. The Phantom, Mavic and Spark series are great examples of this. The camera technology alone has come on leaps and bounds from just a few years ago and are improving rapidly with every new aircraft that hits the market.
This is great for photographers, we now have professional image-making capability hooked up to a flying machine that can provide a whole new and exciting perspective of the world. The improving camera systems, combined with the latest drone technology have given photographers the ability to take stunning photographs and even more dramatic video footage in previously unreachable locations.
Its not surprising therefore that aerial photography is on the rise as are drone sales all over the world. With rising sales, come rising reports of first time, or inexperienced, pilots crashing in dramatic fashion. YouTube is full of videos of crashes which can make for very entertaining viewing.
I personally crashed my DJI Phantom 4 the second time I took it out. I was over confident and flew in a much too tight place for my experience level. Luckily I got away with it but there is a certain ‘heart in the mouth' moment when your expensive toy hits trees and you watch it (in what seems like slow motion) fall to the ground, hoping that you find it in one piece.
To help you avoid a crash during your ‘learning curve' the tips in this article can help you keep your feet on the ground (no pun intended) in an attempt to make sure you do not become overly complacent during those early flights.
This article will not cover how to get into drone photography and videography but Nick Page produced a Photo Taco episode covering this.
1. Start Small
It very tempting to take your drone to some epic location, where you can take images and video of grand vistas. It is wise to avoid this temptation for the first few flights. The consequences of getting it wrong in a place like this are catastrophic for your drone and your bank balance. Start small. Go to an open field far away from people or other obstacles. Limit the height and distance and use your first few drone flights to become familiar with the controls and functions of the drone and get to grips with how it handles. Most drones will come with a ‘beginner mode' function which will limit the drone whilst enabled. This is well worth enabling for the first few flights to stop any inevitable temptation to fly outside of your capability as you are learning and improving your skills.
2. Fly in Wide Open Spaces
Ok this sounds obvious but for the first few flights, make sure you have plenty of space. You do not want to be testing the collision avoidance systems on your first few drone flights. Make sure you become familiar with the controls before flying in tighter spaces. Increase your muscle memory on the controls so they become automatic before getting anywhere near any obstacles and the potential dangers.
3. Read The Entire Manual
I sincerely apologise for putting such a dull tip in an article about an exciting subject. The last thing you want to do when you get your drone is read the manual. Nobody ever reads the manuals, right? For this, however, I would definitely make an exception. You don't want to watch your drone crash into trees and at that moment wish you had read the manual. It's advisable to learn your drone inside and out. It needs to be second nature, and while reading the manual will not do that on its own, it certainly gets you part way there. If you don't want to read the whole thing, then focus on the key areas such as how to control the drone and what to do in an emergency (you want to be able to act quickly if there is any danger to your aircraft and especially to people). You can leave the camera operation and some of the other modes of the drone fo another day if you must but don't be tempted to then operate these whilst taking your first flight, believe me you will be tempted and that just puts the drone at risk.
Pay particular attention to understanding some of the automatic commands you may need in an emergency, such as the ‘Return to Home' (RTH) function. This can be a tricky one. It seems like it should do what it says on the tin but there are some subtleties that you should check out for. For example, if your drone is less than 20 metres away from you and you hit RTH, your drone will not return to home but will, instead, land on the spot. That's how my DJI Phantom 4 made its way into a patch of trees not far from my location. It's safe to say I wasn't entirely compliant with tips 1 and 2 during my first flight. Check the manual to make sure there are no little things like this built into the functionality.
4. Become Familiar With The Drone App and Use the Simulator
The drone apps out there are awesome! They give you great control over the drone, the camera and even have video post processing software built in. The also have a built-in simulator where you can practise flying your drone from the comfort and relative safety of your living room (or anywhere else in the house). Use this feature. The simulator is a great way build your confidence on the drone controls and sharpen that important muscle memory. This means when you get into the field you will find flight much more natural and you will be ready to react more automatically to any issues during flight. The simulator will let you take off and land, perform all the manoeuvring that you can in reality and you can test some of the drone limits (by trying to crash it). This is all risk free from your armchair so is well worth some dedicated time to hone your skills before you take to the skies for real. This will also be a good introduction to the remote control, and the functions of each of the buttons.
The app also gives you a vast amount of technical information about your drone so you can check the status prior to flight. It is advisable to check the aircraft status of your drone through the app before every flight. This information will give you battery data, gimbal status, compass calibration status (calibrate it frequently, its easy and not worth risking it), vision sensor status and a raft of other information, all important for the functionality of the drone. Also check the settings to make sure the video feed is working properly and you have good GPS with at least 10 satellites within range. This is also where you check that the aircraft is in the correct mode for your first flight, which should be beginner mode, with all automatic obstacle avoidance enabled. Also make sure the drone is in ‘Position' mode, or similar if you are not using the DJI system.
5. Inspect Your Drone
Prior to taking flight, it is worth giving the drone a ‘once over'. Visibly inspect the drone for any damage or signs of physical issues. The drone could have been damaged in transit to the store you bought it from or during delivery if you bought it online. It is worth checking that everything seems fine prior to flight. Obviously you are probably not a drone engineer and cannot diagnose subtle problems but you can find any gross imperfections that could make it fall out of the sky. Check the propellers; are they attached properly; are the colour codes matched up; are the edges smooth and free from any damage; is there any sign of cracks in the propeller. Check the camera and gimbal; is there any lens damage; does the gimbal feel smooth to move, is there any visible damage. Check the drone body for cracks and other damage. These checks are very simple to perform and will take very little time, but if you discover damage before taking flight you can avoid any issues going forward and limit the amount of disagreement and argument with the drone supplier before anything goes wrong.
6. Respect The Weather
Your drone does not like the rain. It will also struggle in high winds and its probably not the greatest idea to take out in lighting for, hopefully, obvious reasons. Avoiding bad weather is always advisable. I know what you are thinking, storms and bad weather bring more photographic drama and mood. Whilst I agree with this wholeheartedly, fly your drone in bad weather at your peril. The last thing you want is for the sensor on the drone to start acting up and becoming unpredictable whilst airborne which could lead to a sad face. 🙁
Once you have a few flights under your belt and have control of the drone then you can push the limits of this more and more, but doing so always brings added risk. Definitely not one for your first few flights.
7. Check the Batteries
Again, this should be obvious but it is worth reiterating. This doesn't just mean the intelligent battery needed to power the drone. You should also check the remote control and your smart device you will use. Generally the remote controller will provide power to your smart device from the hand console itself but it is still worth making sure you have plenty of device battery power. You don't want to have to rely on the small amount of charging the device will get from the battery powered controller. It's important to check the battery power and temperature before flight. Cold batteries generally will lose power quicker and so could catch you out mid-flight. Luckily, the technology in the intelligent battery systems from DJI do a lot of these checks for you and will stop the drone operating under these conditions, but even still, it is also worth checking the battery status in the application prior to taking flight. If you have any spare batteries, check these before leaving home. If your primary battery has a malfunction or other issues, your flying will be over for the day if you haven't charged your spares. Oh, and remember to take them with you.
8. Learn The Laws
To make it clear, this article does not constitute legal advice. I am not qualified or well enough informed to advise you on this subject. The section covers a few rules of thumb to help you stay on the right side of the law. For a more comprehensive guide on this you can check out ‘A Lawyers Guide to Drone Photography'. For the drone enthusiast, it is not vital that you have a ‘lawyer' like knowledge of all the laws the govern the use of you drone, but it is important you have a handle on the key ones and that you respect them. In the most part, if you are sensible and respectful with your drone then you shouldn't have too many problems. Of course, if you fly commercially then you need to ensure you pass all the legislative qualifications needed for you country.
To ensure you stay safe, and more importantly, you keep others safe, it is important to fly to the height limits set by the authorities of the place you are flying. This is easy to do and an altitude limit can be set within the application. This restriction is there for a reason and I personally wouldn't want to be responsible for any incident involving low flying aircraft. The footage captured simply isn't worth it. In the UK, this is set at 120 metres which is more than high enough to clear most, if not all, structures, trees and other obstacles and also provide an awesome perspective of the surroundings.
Always be wary of people within the vicinity of the drone, especially when flying at low altitude. Laws will vary on this in different countries, but in the UK you cannot take off or land within 50 metres of people. Again, the last thing I want is to hurt someone with my drone. The footage simply isn't worth it. As a hobbyist, if you are sensible and respect the people around you and your surroundings, you will not go far wrong. There will be a future Improve Photography article on the specifics of legality for drone flying in Europe, so watch this space!!
9. Have The Latest Firmware Installed
Updating firmware is just one of those jobs that we put off. We will always do it ‘the next time' it asks. It is important not to put this off. The firmware update is the only way your drone can get fixes for any issues discovered with the drone whilst operating in the field. DJI, or other drone manufacturers, get all the world data from users of the drone of any issues via error reports, complaints and other forms which mean the operational experience of your drone is far greater than anything you will do as an individual. This gives the drone manufacturers opportunity to if these known issues and applies that fix straight into your drone by a firmware update. By flying the drone without the latest firmware you risk falling foul of an issue that could have been avoided. This is also a good way to stay inside the law as DJI will update the firmware with the latest ‘no fly zones' and legal limitations that your drone needs, and you need, to ensure you stay on the right side of the law.
10. Don't be afraid of it – have fun!!
So, this article is all ‘doom and gloom' and discussed how to avoid some of the major pitfalls during your first flight to give you a positive drone experience from the start. This article is not intended to scare you into never flying your drone. Drones were made to be in the air (is this an Independence Day quote?). So please don't be put off or fearful of your first flight. it really is a truly exhilarating experience from the first time the feet leave the ground. That never really goes away and it is always great to take the drone out. The worst thing you can do is be nervous on the controls the first time you fly. This will make you hesitate and make the wrong decisions. Modern drones really do fly themselves to a certain degree and you can be fairly confident in the safety functions and technology on board. Therefore you can have fun, and so you should, it's awesome. By following these tips in this article, you can ensure that the exhilaration you feel when your drone takes flight, doesn't come crashing down minutes later due to a silly error in judgement or by failing to do some simple things pre-flight. Be comfortable with your drone and have fun. Your will never get tired of flying these amazing machines.