10 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Started out with Drones

Cambridge and Boston in the snow!
Cambridge and Boston in the snow!

 

From what I can tell 2014 seems to be the year of the drone . It’s around this year that Amazon started talking about delivering packages with drones, they’ve been in the news almost every month, we even had a crash landing of the drone on the White House lawn. More recently CNN has now been using drones to film features, and a town in Boston is using them to inspect roofs for snow removal.

Last year, I bought my own drone, a DJI Phantom 2 Vision and now have been enjoying all of the ups and downs of drone piloting. In fact, since then I’ve graduated to building my own drones from parts. In the spirit of paying it forward and paying it back, here is a brief rundown of the major things I had wish I had known when I started out.

#1: Do some homework

There is really a vast difference between a fully integrated drone like the Phantom 2 or Parrot AR, and the consumer level toy you’d get for less than $80 on Amazon. It definitely pays to do your homework on this market.

Required reading:

In my case, I went for the Phantom 2 Vision+ but in retrospect I would have been better off building a Phantom 2 and upgrading it to first person view.

#2: Flying is surprisingly (and troublingly) easy

When I first unboxed my Phantom 2 and charged its batteries, getting it into the air was dead simple. You put on the props, wait for a GPS lock, and take off. Suddenly, without any real preparation or forethought, you are now in control of a device that can fly through the air in any direction up to 30 MPH. The absolute ease of flying one of these types of drones makes it very easy to “fly too far ahead of your skis”. Taking it slow (and getting prop guards) is essential.

#3: Take precautions

Fly in open spaces, get prop guards (because you will crash no matter how careful you think you are). It is very rare for these things to fly away or drop out of the sky, but that can happen. Label your aircraft with your name and phone number. Make a pre-flight checklist to remind you of all of the things to check. Never fly without GPS lock of at least 7 sats, and avoid wind more than 20MPH. Never never never fly unless you set a home location and have verified that the drone will return if a control signal is lost.

#4: Stick time counts

Unless you’ve flown a model airplane or helicopter already, your brain does not come wired understanding how to really fly. Your unprepared to visually identify which direction the drone is flying beyond 30 feet, and your brain goes through all sorts of weird mental gymnastics to properly translate the direction you want to go into the right combination of hand movements. This takes real time to master. As of March, I probably have 30 flights under my belt and still consider myself a learning pilot.

By the way, flying crazy eights, or flying circles with yourself in the center is really great practice.

#5: If Aerial Photography (AP) or Videography is your goal, practice that separately

Videos on a properly stabilized drone are really quite amazing. They provide the impression of unfettered flight, incredibly smooth and almost buttery. Its like superman flying with a steadicam. However, like anything there is a bit of an art. The brain likes to see certain kinds of movement better than others. For instance, changing the tilt more than once during a panning shot makes the shot feel random and unplanned. Video where the camera is rotating with the direction of movement (and even 5-10% ahead of the yaw) feels more exciting and engaging. There are dozens of little things i learned about this that only started to sink in after reviewing a lot of footage.

#6: Have contingency plans

Nothing is more stressful than not being sure how to land your aircraft or trying to find it. There have been numerous times that I’ve been executing a maneuver and then lost the video feed due to interference. Now suddenly, I’m flying blind, scanning the sky trying to figure out what little point of fuzz is my drone. Even worse is loosing your sense of orientation and realizing that the bird is moving in an opposite direction.

#7: Spotters are really helpful

A spotter can keep their eye on the drone and also help redirect onlookers so you can concentrate

#8: Drones are surprisingly robust

For the first few weeks of flying I was operating under the assumption that inside my drone was a very delicate set of mechanics that were all carefully calibrated and that serious problems could occur if any one little thing went wrong. Then after a few crashes, I realized that drones are designed to compensate for all sorts of things. If the weight is imbalanced, or one of the prop rotors a little chipped, the flight control will do a remarkably good job compensating.

I’ve never had a drone just “drop out of the sky” — I think the only thing that could total and sudden failure like this is an electrical short or the battery falling out. On the other hand, if a single prop on a 4 rotor multicopter gets stopped for any reason, you have an instant disaster. This has happened to me when clipping a tree, and also when a kink in the case came loose and rubbed against the motor.

#9: Consider a flight tracker

I consider my Flytrex a very good investment for piece of mind. At any point that my drone crashes or if I loose telemetry during a flight, I can pull open an app and look at where the drone was last seen.

#10: This hobby is addictive and you can get sucked in!

I started out with a integrated consumer drone and now I am building new ones from parts. I’ve soldered and crimped more cables than I can count, and I must have more than 15 different antennas and RF parts scattered around my house. You can quickly go from casual flight to a full blown hobby!