Drones 101: Getting Started With Your New UAV

Fat-Shark-Dominator-FPV-Goggles-and-droneBy James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)

So you got a great new drone! But that comes with an important question: What do you need to know in order to get the most out of it? How can you learn to fly it? Let’s get into it.

The last thing you don’t want is to experience this the first time out …

Do I have your attention now?  You can bet that this drone owner wasn’t prepared for this problem, and it turns out that it may have been a firmware issue that has since been repaired. But the point I want to make is this… While these drones can be charged up and start flying right away, it doesn’t mean as a user you have rush into things. Drones are expensive, and I’m sure you don’t want to watch it quickly crash back to Earth.

Firmware updates. To avoid the expensive tragedy above, the first thing you should do is check online to see if your drone has a firmware update. All electronics are only has current, firmware-wise, as the day it is manufactured, packed, and shipped. After which, there are updates to fix bugs, add features, and other housekeeping details that a firmware update addresses. So bringing your drone current with the latest update is a vital thing to do before you begin. Don’t go off half-cocked with the update either; take your time installing it. Read every single direction while installing it and be very methodical. These instructions are designed to prevent you from bricking your device and so following directions to the letter is important.

Register it online. We’ve discussed this in detail here. It’s now required by the FAA that all drones between 0.55 and 55 pounds (with a few exceptions) be registered. Registration isn’t only to adhere to the law and pay the modest fee, but also to get you to agree to the FAA’s rules on recreational drone use. This way you can’t say you didn’t know the rules if something happens. The cost is $5, but if you register before January 21, 2016, you will get your registration fee rebated back to you. Once registered, you will get a registration number, and you can affix that onto your drone. If it does flyaway, anyone who finds it can at least use the registry to find you.

Read up. Read your manual, cover to cover. You’re going to have plenty of time since you have to charge up the battery anyway, so why not use it to familiarize yourself with the drone through the manual. These drones are expensive and it helps to know what you can expect during its operation. Even if you’ve flown a drone before and know what to basically expect, your new drone may be a different design, and chances are very good it’s going to behave differently. So understand what your drone is all about by reading the manual. You’ll also learn about unique features that you didn’t know were available.

Download the App. After which, download the drone’s app to your smartphone, even if you’re not going to control it with it. The smartphone will have a calibration utility that can remind you of the procedure. Some drones, like the DJI Phantom 3 also have an interactive flight simulator which allows you to practice flying virtually with your controller. That’s very cool. Use it.  If not, there’s plenty of drone apps on iTunes and Google play and you can also try RealFlight Drone Simulator Software. It’s $129, but it comes with a drone controller and enables you to practice your skills virtually.

YouTube is Your Friend. In addition to reading up, it’s a good idea to watch every single video you can find on YouTube about how to fly your drone. Most drone manufacturers have created a kind a series on how to safely operate your drone and you should watch them all, at least twice, so that you know what to expect when flying it. I’d also recommend watching a few drone crash videos while you’re at it. Remember watching those “Red Asphalt” movies in Driver’s Ed? Well, same thing. Drone crash videos may be very entertaining, but they put also the fear of God into you about how to fly your drone properly so you don’t experience the same thing.

I also recommend checking out CineChopper University. Though the drone flight course is a bit pricey (about $165 a month when you buy in six month increments), you can learn some really great tips on how to lessen the learning curve of flying your drone. The videos they provide teach the basics from the ground up and could even help you to become a professional drone pilot in the process (click here for more information).

Check the Weather. Now that you’ve done that, you’re jonsin’ to go out flying. So do yourself a favor and get a weather report. Not just checking your iPhone to see if it’s not snowing or is too windy either. I’m talking space weather, and NASA has a sight all for that called SpaceWeather.com. If there’s solar flare activity going on, this could knock out your GPS calibration and if that happens, the drone is going to fly away and your backup GPS feature on your app will be no help in tracking it down. So make sure you know about the solar activity for the day you’re flying. Failure to do this, every single time you go flying and you can kiss your drone goodbye.

Pick a legitimate spot to fly it. Be aware of where you can legally fly your drone in your area. A park may be a good place to fly, so long as there isn’t any people around that the drone could fly over. But if the park is too close to an airport, you could be in restricted airspace. So understand where you are at.

Calibrate your Drone. You’re charged up and ready, registered and you’ve read your manual. Now, calibrate your drone. Follow the instructions in your manual (there is also likely a calibration utility on your drone’s app). The method will vary from drone to drone, but the basics are that running your drone calibration will align the drone’s GPS with the GPS satellites so that it can fly. When you first fly, you’re going to be heavily reliant flying with GPS guidance.  If you don’t have a GPS lock, the drone WILL fly away. Trust me on this. You’ll want to do this EVERY time you fly, and it only takes a few minutes.

Ignore your camera. Now you’re ready to fly your first time. But don’t just go out and expect to create those classic aerial drone shots right away. In fact, I wouldn’t even include your camera in your first few flights, unless it’s built into the design (which most are now).  If so, it could help to just let the camera run while you fly, for review later, I wouldn’t pay any attention to it while you’re learning how to fly it. Just hit record before you take off and then turn it off after you land. Let it’s document your flight time, but don’t let it distract you.

Practice. Practice. Practice. Make subtle movements while flying. If you notice from the best aerial most are very stable, they don’t make any sudden movements. Just small and subtle ones. It’s a flying camera, remember, you don’t want your audience to get vertigo. So think more lumbering cargo plane instead of fighter plane and just fly low and slow, only turning when you have to.

Why low? Because if you look at your drone videos after you fly, it looks a LOT higher from the camera point of view than it actually is. While the FAA rule is 400′ or below, and within line of sight, I’m betting you can get most of your desired footage at 100′ with ease, at least at the very beginning. So while you’re learning to fly your drone, keep your ceiling at 100′ until you’re very comfortable with it. Additionally, learn to fly within a limited area. While I’m at the park practicing, I keep my drone within the boundaries of the soccer field chalk lines. This way it’s relatively close to me should it crash and I can retrieve it. But it keeps the drone within my line of sight and I can practice better that way.

If the weather isn’t cooperating, you can still practice by using the app’s VR simulator utility, if it’s available. The point is, you want to master your drone, not allow the drone to master you. Flying a drone requires a steady and practiced hand and the only way you’re going to be able to prevent a crash is to do so before it happens. But if something does go wrong, always remember that if your drone is in GPS mode, you can just take your hands off the remote and it’ll automatically right itself and hover while you catch your breath.

One more thought: It may behoove you to buy a very inexpensive drone to learn the basics before stepping up to your expensive new UAV.

Log your flights. If your drone app doesn’t have a flight log, there are dozens of flight log apps for mobile devices, and there  are a few third party ones for drones. Logging your flight education services several purposes. One, it teaches you to be methodical, and b) it will remind you just how far you’ve come on this flight journey. And you can keep track of the things you practiced so you can see what you need to bone up on.

Lastly, don’t wait until the drone’s battery runs out to bring it back. These drones don’t fly forever, most only have a useful battery life of about 20 minutes. So keep track of your battery life. Pay close attention to it and land it under your conditions, not the drones. For once it dips below a certain point, it’ll start a landing sequence no matter where it is and you may have to walk a ways to recover it. Better to end your flight early when you still have a little juice in the battery and then you have the option to recharge of swap out the battery if you have a backup.

Then do it all over again! But don’t forget to re-calibrate if you swap out your battery to continue flying. Next up, we’ll talk about some great accessories to make your drone experience better, and a few tips on getting flying more efficiently.

About James DeRuvo

James has a multi-faceted career that spans radio, film and publishing. A writer about the technology in the video industry for nearly 20 years, James is also an award winning film director, having garnered a Telly Award for his short film Searching for Inspiration. He's also worked as a producer of many talk radio programs in Los Angeles with topics ranging from entertainment to travel to technology.

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