How to Fly a Quadcopter
A Few Basic Tips When Flying Drones or Quadcopters
Before we learn how to fly a quadcopter or drone, let’s get the identity of these things sorted. They come with a multitude of names, abbreviations and meanings and it can be confusing to the beginner.
Page update 2018: Please read to the end for an update to my drone flying experience : )
This is probably the name most people relate to and it is one I hear most when out and about such as...
"Is that a drone?"
Even now as they become more popular, people still use the name that they most likely heard on the news or from friends that have seen the news. Unfortunately, the name drone conjures up images of war and bombs being dropped from unmanned aircraft. Mostly written by news agencies such as the BBC and CNN etc.
In reality, the word drone relates to any of these other meanings.
This can be a little misleading as the term quadcopter specifies the number of rotors on the "drone". In this case four (quad). You can also get helicopters (1 lift rotor), hexacopters (6 rotors) and octocopters (8 rotors) and no doubt variations of these will appear over time.
However, with the popularity of the DJI Phantom 1, 2 and 3 range of "drones" and more recently, the DJI Mavic 3, which all have four rotors, the term quadcopter has become synonymous and popular amongst flyers.
UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle)
This is more of an official term used by governing bodies such as the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) in order for them to all "sing from the same song sheet".
UAS (Unmanned Ariel Systems)
Another version on the term UAV but UAS is more geared towards the actual system itself (the whole GPS, video-link FPV systems) and and not so much the drone or quadcopter.
RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft)
Again, this is widely used by authorities as an alternative to the word "drone".
RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems)
As with UAS, this is more geared towards the system as a whole and not just the drones or quadcopters.
Learning to Fly Drones - How to Fly a Quadcopter
Ok, you are probably itching to get out there and start flying a quadcopter in your local park or on the beach. Maybe even in the road in which you live (if you haven’t done so already). My recommendation is to try and hold off until you read this full article.
Before I even bought a "grown up" drone or quadcopter, I bought myself a £50 cheap toy drone (with HD camera) from Amazon as I thought it was "better to smash or lose a cheap quad" than a £1,000-£2,000 machine.
The thing about the Hubsan quadcopter is that it is fully manual. No GPS to help you with your flying, although it does have excellent stabilisation gyros. This means that when you become confident and expert at flying this little machine, a larger drone like the Phantom 2 or 3 from DJI Innovations will seem like a breeze.
In fact, this is exactly what happened to me.
I became proficient with the Hubsan mini drone so that when I first flew the DJI Phantom 2, I was surprised at how easy it was. Having things like GPS lock, an excellent compass, "return to home" (excellent), course lock and home lock made me feel pretty confident. Especially when flying the best part of £1,500 (including a Go Pro HD Hero 4 Black and 64GB memory card). Even over water.
Learn the rules
Wherever you plan to fly your new drone or quadcopter, there are a few things you need to be aware of. This includes the various laws for your country, zone or local area. There are some blindingly obvious things such as flying near any type of airfield, large or small. Or anywhere that could cause serious harm to someone or property.
The CAA (civil aviation authority) in the UK have a good set of guidelines for the casual, recreational flyer (with or without camera on board) that I absolutely recommend you both read and adhere to if you want to stay safe and out of trouble.
Please check the local aviation rules for your own country or region.
In a nutshell, your UAV/UAS/RPA aircraft must be flown:
Plus it must not be flown:
You can find details of all restricted airspace in the UK at www.skydemonlight.com. This has free, powerful flight planning and GPS navigation software (you will need to download and install Microsoft Silverlight to use this).
Flying Drones Commercially
If you plan to fly your drone or quadcopter commercially in the UK (basically anything that pays you for your work), you will need to do the BNUC-s course. This will ultimately grant you permission for aerial work (PFAW) by the CAA to do so legally.
Fly commercially without this permission at your peril. Believe me when I say the CAA are watching you and coming down hard on those that either break the rules above or fly commercially without permission, insurance and the necessary qualifications.
For the record (2015), I have just done the 2 day BNUC-s ground course and examination (£700 + VAT) at Heathrow airport. I am now awaiting my results*. A pass mark of 85% is needed to move onto the next stage which is writing a 50-60 page operations manual. Then you need to complete your actual flight exam (£350 + VAT).
Note: Insurance is also required to fly commercially and comes in at around £600 per year per drone on average.
*As soon as I had finished this article, I received my exam results…92% pass, phew! Operations manual and flight exam next…
I have only been flying drones for about 6-7 months but feel I have learned a fair bit in that time. Both with a "toy" drone and the DJI Phantom 2 Quadcopter.
My first "panic experience" came with the mini drone when I decided to venture outside and fly it on our local beach. Remember, this thing has no GPS and operates in full manual mode.
I shot the thing into the sky and as it was so small...it vanished. Panicking, I let the power go and it basically plopped into 1 foot of water in the sea in front of me. I kept pumping the motors on the way home to at least try and keep it dry, then took it apart, dried it thoroughly and luckily it still works (although the 2mp HD camera is dead).
When I flew the Phantom 2 for the first time, I was literally shaking. I found a deserted green area with plenty of space to fly and gingerly took it for a spin. Flying at sensible heights until I got used to it, I then took it up to about 30m or so.
Doing this a few times over a few days certainly built up my confidence.
As I said earlier, the GPS on the Phantom 2 works so well it didn’t take long before I was flying reasonably well. Then I ventured out over water and to the maximum height of 400ft. All good so far…
Ways to fly
Being able to fly using GPS, in ATTI mode or manually is great for most UAV’s. These days, most UAV's have a number of built-in safety features such as
These should really only be used when testing the machine or if you get into trouble.
This is the best way to start out and for many people, the way to continue flying. Your smaller drone or UAV will lock onto a minimum of four satellites. Three satellites in good line of sight for a position fix and one provides timing corrections.
Really though, if you want GPS accuracy to within a few metres or less, 8 or more satellites is best. My DJI Inspire 1 drone generally uses around 18 or more satellites!
When flying in GPS mode, you can let go of the flight levers on your remote control and the UAV will hover where it is. It will even fight to hold its position against the wind. For me, this makes for great aerial photography and especially video work where you need the impression of "being on a tripod".
It will also give the home lock position (home point or take off point) as reference for any failsafe procedures. Procedures such as return to home mentioned earlier. I used this twice for testing and both times the Phantom 2 landed pretty much exactly where I took off from.
ATTI (Attitude) Mode*
This is like a "semi-automatic" mode in that you don’t have GPS to help position you. However, you do have gyros for stabilisation, a good compass and other things in place to help you fly. It will generally hold pitch, yaw and height in this mode. Plus it will stay level but it will be susceptible to wind.
If it is windy or you are moving to the left or right, front or back or up and down as you let go of the control levers (centre them), the UAV will continue flying in that direction. Until it slowly stops depending on the speed it was going at the point in which you let go.
Some say this is great for photography and aerial video work. This is because the UAV will gently glide in the same direction giving you nice, smooth footage. In reality, it takes some practice to get used to this.
Orientation Loss (scary)
Once, I was practicing figure of eights in this mode and at one point lost orientation of the UAV. I didn’t know which direction it was facing and when it started to head towards a tree helped by the wind, I had some mild panic. Letting go of the levers to use GPS hold was impossible due to the drift. A swift change to GPS mode on the controller saved the day and it hovered where it was. You need to be careful in this mode and practice a lot with it.
ATTI mode is useful for checking wind speed and direction. Simply raise the UAV to a suitable height for testing (20-30 metres), let it hover and then switch to ATTI mode. The wind will take the UAV and you can assess the wind speed and direction before switching to GPS mode for full control.
This really is more for the experienced flyer as you are pretty much left to your own devices. Much like with the smaller Hubsan "toy" drone mentioned earlier. The UAV will remain relatively stable using its gyros but everything else is down to you.
For example, in GPS mode when you let go of the levers, the UAV or drone will hover where it is. Height and position. If you do the same in manual mode, the levers when in their central position will not hover the UAV. This position only gives 50% power to the motors (or thereabouts).
This will cause the UAV to start descending. If you move the directional lever on the remote control right over to the left or right and hold it there, there is a good chance the UAV will roll or flip so be careful.
Read Up and Practice
Basically there are way more chances for you to get into trouble in manual mode. So again, read up on it, watch a few YouTube videos and test this mode in a large field away from people, animals and buildings before doing anything else.
Personally I love GPS mode and have got some great footage using it. Plus I feel safer flying this way for now but time will tell. Always fly in the mode you feel most comfortable with until you gain more experience.
*To get to use ATTI or Manual modes, you need to change your Phantom UAV Quadcopter from "Phantom" to NAZA. This will unlock IOC (Intelligent Orientation Control).
So, here are a few of my personal guidelines:
...these are just my guidelines for people wanting to fly recreationally/safely. They are not necessarily in accordance with your local laws or legislation. Please be sure to check the laws and guidelines for your own territory.
With all this said, my flying experience has been fantastic and anyone that has seen me flying (so far) has been quite amicable and genuinely interested. What also stands out is the fact that very few people understand the dangers of a quadcopter falling on them at freefall speed from the sky. Or the rotors hitting them at full speed.
It is up to you and me to educate and convince the general public that we are safe and responsible pilots. Especially if we want this cool hobby (or business) to continue to flourish and attract new pilots.
For me personally, I am massively interested in the commercial aspect of flying drones and have already received a number of enquiries for some very cool jobs. Jobs such as filming huge cruise ships coming into port.
Update 2018: That job came and was completed without trouble. That is despite high winds and flying 500m out to sea!
Return to Home in Action
Testing out the failsafe/return to home. This is what happens when your UAV, drone or quadcopter reaches its preset minimum battery power (in this case, 10% as it was close to me).
My first few flights (including the cruise ship)
This is a compilation of my first few months worth of flights using the DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter with Go Pro HD Hero 4 Black Edition. Most of the footage was shot at 4K 30fps and downsized to HD 1080p.
These are some of my latest clips from the DJI Inspire 1:
As you can see, I have flown for TV (BBC/Channel 4) and for a team from Pinewood Studios. I have also flown on a number of commercial jobs and am still going strong in 2018. This is a superb business to be in.
I will be adding a full aerial photography and video course in the future so please either bookmark this site or better still, join our newsletter!