Drone School 4: Orientation and precision exercises

Precision and orientation are the name of the game at Drone School 4. Learn how to fly a quadcopter drone safely and precisely.(Credit: Shutterstock)

You've got the basics of how to fly a drone under control, and you haven't managed to destroy your quadcopter yet. Congratulations! Let's get into some meatier exercises involving precision and orientation. In Drone School 4 we practice hovering in different orientations, work on bank turns and figure 8s around markers, have a crack at nose-in landing and look at a much easier and cheaper way to get your skills up.

Don't forget the golden rule: IF YOU CRASH, THROTTLE OFF IMMEDIATELY!

To that, we'd like to add a second rule: fast flying is fun, but slow, controlled flying is how you improve. These exercises are all about control and smoothness. Don't try to go fast, try to be perfect, just like me. That's a joke. I am profoundly crap, as you will discover when watching the videos below.

Exercise 6: Hover 'round the clock

Sack up, soldier. It's time to start working on orientation. The first thing we're going to do is try to maintain a stable hover while pointing in a bunch of different directions.

First up, practice holding a steady tail-in hover over a marked spot before messing with orientation, compensating for any breeze or any movement of the aircraft to keep it in place.

When you're ready, use the left stick yaw control to turn 90 degrees right to the 3 o'clock position and hold it there. Tough, right? You need to conceptualize the situation from the drone's point of view, always remembering which way it's facing and developing an instinct for correcting in the right direction when it moves off its spot.

When you get the hang of that, rotate back to the left until you're at the 9 o'clock position and do the same thing. Everything will be reversed, but if you keep that mental model of the quad in your mind and conceptualize everything from its point of view, you should be able to get a handle on it.

Finally, rotate the drone until it's facing you and hold it still in the air. Keep that mental model in mind – use the lights as a cue to remember which way the drone is facing.

If you're anything like me, this one will give you the absolute willies. Even if you're fairly confident with the drone in motion, holding it still without stabilization and gently correcting for random breeze in a bunch of different orientations is a tough thing to get your head around, and a good reminder of how in control you really are. Good luck!

Exercise 7: Flying in circles (bank turns)

Time to take things up another notch and start using all the controls at once. The challenge here is to fly in smooth circles around a marker, while rotating the drone so it's always facing forward.

Position yourself to one side of your marker, give yourself a little forward momentum, and then gently add a little yaw with the left stick. You'll also have to use a touch of right stick roll to bring it around, all the while managing your throttle to keep the drone level.

The key skill here is managing your momentum - a turning drone is like a car drifting on ice with zero traction, floating sideways until it's given a push in a new direction. Use your right stick roll to nudge it around into a bank turn.

You should be able to find a point where you can leave your controls pretty steady and have the aircraft come around smoothly without too much correction, as long as you're not flying in the wind.

Got it? Great, then do it in the other direction. You want to reach a point where you can take off and go straight into a smooth circle.

For bonus points, you might want to try circling with the drone's nose pointing straight towards the centre of the at all times – a nose-in circle. I actually find this one a bit easier, probably due to years of FPV gaming in which the ol' strafe-n-circle move has slain me many a foul beast. Only, with gaming, movement is on the left hand and you change orientation with the right, so your gaming instincts will tend to make you go the wrong way.

Exercise 8: Figure 8s

Is our numbering scheme appropriate, or what? For this one you'll need two markers, about 10 meters apart.

Building on your circle work above, your challenge is to fly figure 8s in both directions, keeping the drone facing forward as it flies. Adding the markers makes this a ton more difficult than the previous exercise – free movement is much easier than putting your drone exactly where you want it.

Keep it slow, keep it under control. You've got more to gain from precision than from speed here. Be aware of any cross-breeze, which will tend to make your turns tighter than a duck's bum at one end and completely out of control at the other.

Start out very slowly, just using yaw and a little pitch to get you around - and when you start to get that under control, add in some bank to your turns as above. The more speed you develop, the more likely you'll spin out of control, so give yourself some space!

Exercise 9: Nose-in landing

Fly out to about 10 meters in front of yourself, at a height of a couple of meters. Then turn the drone around and bring it back towards yourself, and land it on a pre-determined spot a couple of meters in front of you.

Landing nose-in means you have to manage direction, orientation and the ground-effect cushion while making a controlled descent to a specific spot. There's a fair bit going on, so take it slow and go for precision.

Try an R/C Flight Simulator

Surely by this point you're getting a picture of how easy and expensive quads can be to crash – and how nifty you need to be with the sticks to fly one well. Luckily, there's an option for you that lets you experiment with all kinds of tricks – and it doesn't take two bloody hours to charge the battery.

Flight simulators featuring quadcopters have popped up all over the place in the last couple of years, and some of them are pretty damn good as well as being cheap.

We're not going to try to list them all here, you can do a bit of googling to see which sim you like, but I can recommend one I've been using a fair bit lately: FPV Freerider. It costs five bucks on a PC or Mac, less on mobile devices, and it hooks up via USB or Bluetooth to a range of R/C controllers as well as gamepads like the Playstation controller.

There's only one flight model, but you do get a range of different environments to fly in, either line of sight or FPV (first person view) if you want to train up to do some drone racing. You can fly in self-levelling attitude mode, high-rate attitude mode or acro/manual mode, and I've found it very helpful. You can adjust the physics to try to make it feel as much as possible like whatever you're used to flying. Check it out (apologies for the music):

That oughtta keep you guys busy until the new year – stay tuned for more January 2016. In Drone School 5 we'll take a look at aerial cinematography and getting the most out of your camera quad.

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