7 Tips for starting with drones
Drones. Literally, they’re everywhere. Whether it’s zipping through the skies, performing aerial acrobatics indoors, or lovingly stalking you from a user-defined distance, there’s no escaping them. And thanks to a rapidly evolving technology base and consumer interest that’s steadily on the rise, it looks as if drones are poised to dominate both the air and the airwaves for years to come. If you’re one of the many people interested in joining the drone revolution, now’s a great time to do so. With so many options available to consumers, getting your drone’s pilot license has never been easier.
But where to start?
Drones, or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), come in a variety of shapes and sizes, many with different performance features and at varying costs. For the uninitiated, all of these options can seem a little intimidating. To help get you into the air, we’ve compiled a list of useful tips that will make your transition from novice pilot to experienced sky captain a less turbulent one.
With so many purchase options, it’s important to know (or at least have an idea) of what you want to use your drone for. Are you interested in aerial photography or do you just want to stunt through the park? Speaking of the park, are you planning on flying your new drone indoors or outside? What’s more important to you, an aircraft with a built-in camera gimbal or the ability to perform pre-programmed barrel rolls? These are the types of questions you should ask yourself before making your first drone purchase. You don’t necessarily need to have your call-sign already picked out, but having a general sense of what you’d like to do with your new UAV will help you narrow the field into choices that are right for you.
RTF versus DIY
Now that you’ve got a basic idea of what kind of drone you’d like, it’s time to learn about three very important letters in the dronist’s alphabet: RTF. Simply put, RTF, or Ready-to-Fly, means your drone is ready for takeoff right out of the box. Everything you need to get airborne is included, from props to transmitter. This is an important distinction to look for when purchasing your drone, because not all models are RTF. Some drones require assembly or additional equipment, such as a radio controller, flight battery, or additional propellers. Before you click the purchase button, be sure to check whether your UAV is RTF, or you might end up being SOL (stuck on land).
Practice makes perfect
It’s tough to match the exhilaration you feel once you’ve mastered flying your drone. The tricks, the speed, the elegant maneuvering—it’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience. However, getting to that level of competency isn’t always an overnight process. Getting the hang of your drone’s flight controls can take some work, which is why for pilots who are just starting out, practicing in a safe, low-altitude environment is a smart place to begin. A good motto when beginning with drone flight is: “Keep it low, and keep it slow.” Better yet, try picking up a more cost-friendly UAV to practice indoors. Once you’ve got the feel for the controls, you’ll be able to translate that skill set to a more advanced model for a truly unparalleled (and crash-free) experience.
Stock up on spare parts and accessories
Keeping spare drone parts close by is always a smart bet. As any pilot will tell you, with drones, the unexpected can happen—that’s part of the excitement. Sometimes that excitement results in a bent prop or fried motor. Usually that’s not the case, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry (especially if “being sorry” involves driving 45 minutes to an abandoned parking lot to test out your brand-new drone only to bust a propeller during a failed run and not having any spares with you—I’m not bitter, I swear). So, before you head out, be sure to stock up on extra rotary blades and definitely keep a backup flight battery handy. That way you’re not grounded while you’re waiting for your primary battery to recharge. If you’re using a drone that can capture video to a memory card, make sure you bring a couple along—Delkin’s microSD cards are always a good bet. And speaking of carrying things around, if you plan on traveling with your drone, be sure to pick up a protective case or backpack. I store my Phantom (and all its accessories) in a Lowepro DroneGuard Backpack, which makes transport a breeze.
Get your Matlock on
Even as of this writing, the rules concerning drones and UAV flight are under review. Before you make your drone purchase or take to the friendly skies, make sure you’re up to date on all the latest rules and regulations on what you can and cannot do with your new UAV. A good place to start is the FAA’s resource page on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which details current US drone laws and prohibitions.
One of the reasons drones are so much fun is because there’s so much you can do with them. Whether you’re a hobbyist, a professional, or somewhere in between, the possibilities are near endless. But because there’s so much you can do with a drone, there’s also plenty that can go wrong. That’s why it’s always smart to plan ahead. Whether it’s staging the perfect photo-op, checking the daily forecast for prohibitive weather, or having the foresight to pack any extra flight battery or two, planning for contingencies will help ensure your flight plan goes accordingly.
Safety first (and last)
E. Hamilton Lee said it best: “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.” Sure, he might not have been talking UAV pilots, but the edict still applies. The bottom line with drone use is this: Be safe. Drones are incredibly fun and useful devices, but they also hold the potential for serious danger and should be treated accordingly. Most rules of the sky are pretty straightforward and fall under the banner of common sense: don’t buzz people or animals, stay off airfields, avoid power lines, etc. Not all safety measures are quite that obvious, so be sure to read all the safety documentation that comes with your drone to avoid potential dangerous situations, and keep the good times (barrel) rolling.