Drone School 3: Your first quadcopter flight

Let's go through the basics of your first quadcopter flight(Credit: Shutterstock)

You've got your first quadcopter, you've read the broken-English manual and assembled it, you've got your head around the transmitter and you're ready to give this thing a crack. Here are some basic exercises to try on your first few flights that will hopefully help you make it to your second few flights with just as many props, frames, pets and limbs as you started with.

First things first:

Where to learn to fly your quadcopter

If you're flying anything heavier than, say, 200 g (7 oz), you're going to have to do it outside. Look for somewhere:

  • wide open
  • free from power lines, cell phone towers or transformers (electromagnetic interference can screw with your transmission signal and cause random flyaways)
  • free from trees if possible
  • free from pedestrian traffic

Don't fly in high winds. In fact, for your first flight you'll want as little wind as possible, particularly if your drone is fairly light or not equipped with GPS stabilization.

You might need more space than you think. Even a small drone can easily get away from you and end up 50 meters away in just about any direction if you panic and hit the wrong controls!

If you're flying a small, light drone like the Hubsan X4, Blade Nano or Syma X5, you're probably safer starting off inside in a clear room where you won't have to compensate for wind. Mini, micro and nano class drones tend to get blown around a bit outside.

In both cases, stay away from people, and be aware that quadcopters tend to upset pets.

Pre-flight checks

Before you take to the air, a few quick checks can save you a lot of heartache and spare parts.

  • check that the quadcopter and transmitter both have charged batteries
  • check quadcopter battery is securely locked in place and connected
  • check that there's nothing loose or broken on the quadcopter
  • check propellers are securely fitted
  • check that leading edges of the props aren't hacked up with crash damage (your quad might still fly with damaged props, but at high speed this is a common cause of vibration that can cause heat damage to your motors and play havoc with onboard gyroscopes and sensors. Best to get a bunch of spare props and throw out anything that's not in good condition. Mind you, almost nobody follows this advice, so do with it what you will.)
  • visual/tactile check for loose screws
  • turn on the quadcopter
  • back up a few steps, with the quad's back lights facing directly towards you
  • turn on the transmitter and "bind" it with your drone if necessary
  • one last check of your surroundings to make sure there are no people or pets about

All good? Let's fly!

The Golden Rule

IF YOU CRASH, THROTTLE OFF IMMEDIATELY!

This is an important reflex to develop. You're gonna crash this thing. It might get tangled in tree leaves or long grass. It might end up upside down on pavement or stones. Heck, if you're out of control it might end up flying right into your face. Whatever happens, you don't want those props spinning.

At a minimum you'll scuff up the propellers, affecting their aerodynamics and your ability to fly smoothly. If a prop is stuck and the throttle is left on, you can burn out your motors. And of course, if it's flying right at your face the last thing you want is a high-speed haircut. Cut the throttle immediately.

Exercise 1: Takeoff, hover and land

Using the left stick only, give the quad some positive throttle until it lifts off. Get at least a foot off the ground (ground effect can cause some strange behavior in a very low hover).

Use the throttle to maintain your height as steady as you can. You might notice the quad beginning to drift horizontally if you're not flying with GPS stabilization, but don't worry about it.

Then bring it down as gently as possible onto a flat surface, giving it a touch of extra throttle right as you land to smooth things out. Easy, right! Get this one under control.

Exercise 2: Lateral movement and stable hover

Make sure the back of the quad is facing you (be sure to familiarize yourself with the lights or markings that denote the back of the quad). If the quad rotates around its yaw axis and the rear is no longer pointing towards you, land it straight away. We'll deal with yaw later.

Take off and hover a couple of feet off the ground. Then, using the right stick, gently move the quad laterally. Go smoothly forward and back, then left and right. An unstabilized drone might lose altitude when you tilt it, so you may need to modulate the throttle to keep the height level. Be careful to keep your movements gentle and smooth, hard corrections are a great way to completely lose control when you're learning.

Now that you've got a feel for movement, try stopping. Whichever way the drone is moving, tilt it gently in the opposite direction and bring it to a stop. Unstabilized quads will tend to wander in the breeze, or even if there's no breeze, so practice keeping it in one spot as much as you can.

Exercise 3: Squares and circles

It's one thing to move a quad around in the air, but it's another to do so with any kind of precision. Put a marker down on the ground and see how good you are at putting the drone where you want it to be.

Start by taking off and hovering over your marker. Then, using the right stick, execute some square patterns around it. Go forward, right, left and back, trying to keep the square evenly over the top of the marker. Once you've got it happening, switch directions.

Once you've got the hang of that, try doing circles. Gently rotate the right stick to smoothly circle around the marker. This is a tough one as you need to manage the tilt of the drone against its momentum in the air, and if you're going to do this smoothly you'll need to move very gradually between the compass points on your right stick. Again, once you've got it, switch directions.

Exercise 4: Basic Yaw

The name of the game here is really "how to get the back of the drone pointing back towards you before you screw up and bin the thing." Remember, when you and the drone are facing in the same direction, that right stick works very intuitively. Push forward, go forward. Push right, go right.

If the quad is facing to the right, though, pushing forward will go to your right, backward will go to your left, and if you're anything like most beginners you're going to freak out and fly it into a tree. That's why we try to keep the back of the quad facing us while we're learning.

Let's tempt fate, though, and play with the yaw control so you've got a chance of fixing it if things get out of orientation for some reason.

Take off and get yourself into a stable hover, then gently move the left stick left and right to rotate the quad in the air. On an unstabilized drone you may need to manage throttle at the same time to keep yourself level. Remember, be smooth.

If the quad starts drifting laterally, rotate it back so it's facing forward again before you try to correct with the right stick. You've got enough on your plate at the moment and trying to work out how to fly in different orientations will bake your noodle golden brown.

Exercise 5: Landing pads

The last exercise we'll do here is a pretty simple one. Pick two nice landing spots and mark them out. All you've got to do is lift off from one, fly over to the other, and land. Rinse and repeat.

This will help you get used to taking off at an angle, smooth directional flying, stopping and precise landing. It doesn't matter what you're landing on, as long as it's smooth and flat, and you've picked it out before you start the movement. If you're near a picnic table or something similar, pick a spot that's elevated from the ground. But the key is, pick exactly where you want to land, and put it down smoothly, right on that spot.

With these five exercises, you've got more than enough to burn through a bunch of batteries. Get into it, and stay tuned for Drone School 4, where things get really tough and we'll start to work on precision and orientation exercises. Happy flying!

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