Learn About Flying Your First Drone :: What You Need To Know To Get Started

Flying your first drone a beginners guide

Getting Started In Drones :: A Beginners Guide

From camera platforms to racers, we've got you covered

UPDATED :  

Now that you've seen drones everywhere and they seem to be invading every flying field across the country, you made the decision to pick one up and start flying it-just to see what all the excitement is about. But unlike planes, these are a different kind of beast, and you might not be sure exactly where to start. This is why you're reading this article: in the hope of obtaining the information you need about the latest technology in the drone world. I will try to help you out in that search and also offer up tips and tricks to make drone flying easier. But first things first-let's talk about how to get started.


Where Do I Start?

RC Flight Simulator RF7.5 SoftwarePracticing with a flightsimulator will accelerate your learning curve.

In some respects, flying drones is similar to flying airplanes: They use a familiar transmitter, and control inputs are relatively similar. But they are different, and their controls will take a bit of thumb retraining. If, however, you have flown helicopters before, then you are ahead of the game; drone flight will be very similar to helicopter flight. So where Is the best place to start? The same place you did when learning to fly airplanes: on a flight simulator.

Almost all of the flight simulators that are on the market today have some type of multirotor quadcopter built into the programming. Many people who have been flying for some time will already have some type of flight simulator. If your simulator does not have a quadcopter, it might require software updates to the programming or purchasing a new add-on. Once you have that bad boy Installed, start flying around in your simulated environment. While this might not react exactly like a multirotor in the real world, it will definitely be close enough to get your thumbs acclimated to flying a multirotor aircraft. After mastering this virtual world of flying, the next step will be to purchase your first multirotor.


Real-World Drone Experience

Real world drone flying experience

Start out small. There are literally thousands of mini multirotors available from just as many manufacturers, but I would recommend purchasing from a manufacturer that you know or like. These include many of the same people from whom you buy your fixed-wing aircraft, and they will most likely have a larger multlrotor platform that you can eventually move up to. The two big advantages of starting out with a small multirotor is that, first, it is inexpensive and, second, many are somewhat crash resistant — plus they are great fun to fly.


Drones & Indoors Training

Indoor drone training

ABOVE : Starting out with a smaller drone like the Dromlda Omlnus XL will soon have you moving up to larger ones.

One of the beauties of having a mini multirotor is that you can train indoors. The downside to that is there are more obstacles inside, and you will most likely be crashing into a number of things in your environment. But because the mini multirotor has so little inertia going into stuff, it will most likely survive a number of crashes. Your job as the pilot isto make sure that you don't crash into anything that is valuable inside your house. So a quick survey of your flight room to remove valuable items might be in order.

It won't take long to master flying around the house, so the next logical step is to increase your flying skills by making it more difficult to fly around the house. Do this by creating an obstacle course. Solid objects, such as the coffee and diningroom table, are fair game. First, try flying around them with control, then under them; after that, make up a course moving through and around many different objects to make it fun and challenging.

Practice forward flight—slowly—then boost up your speed as you maneuver around the various obstacles. Once you're feeling really cocky, fly the same obstacles while traveling backward or sideways.


Moving On Up To Larger Drones

Moving to a larger drone

Once you've mastered indoor flight and maneuvering with the mini multirotor in any direction, it is time to move up to the larger drones. You will realize three things rather quickly about larger drones. The first is that they come with a higher price tag, and your available cash will determine the size you finally settle on. One good standard to use: Don't buy anything you can't afford to crash. A downed multirotor will make you cry, but it shouldn't create a financial hardship.

The second thing is that the midsize to large quads will have some type of stabilization built in; as a result, flight stability will be much improved and make it easier for you to control your drone.

Many drones will have two to three different flight-stabilization modes that you can select from. I recommend starting out using the most stable flight mode; as your skills and confidence advance, move to the mode that gives more flying control to you, the pilot (i.e., less stabilization).

You might eventually settle on flying always in the mode that has the maximum stability (such as GPS). You will want to learn how to fly without it, however, in case you are put in a situation where stabilization becomes disabled. If that should ever happen, having the ability and confidence to fly without it could be a real lifesaver.

Because of the distance you can achieve outside, orientation will be an issue at some point. Some orientation modes will allow you to fly the aircraft with the nose pointing in any direction but still maintain the control of the aircraft to your location. Whatever orientation mode you start with, my recommendation is to stay with that at least in the beginning. Once you've mastered that one, then move on to a different orientation mode and master that one.


Let go of the sticks

Hands off drone flying

Many midsize to large multirotor aircraft will have some type of GPS assist stabilization. What this means is that, when you let go of the control sticks, the multirotor will stop in that three-dimensional space and stay there waiting for your next command.

Letting go of the sticks will be the best thing you can do when you get disoriented during the flight; this will let the multirotor level out and stabilize. In most cases, this will save your multirotor 99 percent of the time. Simply put, if you are in trouble, let go of the sticks!

Let the multirotor level out and then slowly move the gimbals to see which direction it goes. Once you've figured out the orientation of the bird, then start flying it back toward you. That wasted 20-30 seconds of battery life while the multirotor hovers out there wilt be one of the best time investments you will ever make.


First Flight

Your drones first flight

Finally, the big day comes to fly your larger multirotor and you feel good. All the prep work with the simulator and mini multirotor have paid off, your confidence is up, your knees are still a little shaky, but you are ready. You still want to approach things slowly.

Start by flying over some flat land with few or no obstacles; this will make it easy to land if necessary. You absolutely do not want the first flight to be in a heavily forested area or out over the water; this will just add to your first-flight jitters. If possible, have an experienced multirotor pilot next to you; you will be surprised how much this will help boost your confidence for your first flight.

That person can also serve as a spotter, which you should have on every flight anyway; a copilot, if any problems should arise; and a savior, if you get totally confused. Once you master flying over flat land, then you can choose how complicated you want the terrain to be while flying your multirotor.


TWO DIRECTIONS

Now that you know how to fly drones, the next step is to decide what you want to do with your drone. There are two basic roads to travel: using drones as a camera platform to create some stunning aerial photos/videos or getting addicted to the adrenaline rush that is first-person-view (FPV) racing. For most drone pilots, it will be a combination of both.

Learning to fly a drone for camera use will require some smooth - and slow-flying skills, coupled with working with a partner who will be operating the camera and gimbal. Drone racing requires nimble stick control and all-out snap decisions to make it through the course.

Which direction you choose to go is strictly a personal choice, which will be influenced by what you enjoy doing and how you like to fly. For this decision, I cannot help you. But if you read on, I can give you some recommendations as to some of our editors' picks on the best camera and racing drones.


BEST FIRST RACING DRONES

One of the fastest growing aspects of drones is racing, where pilots use FPV to see a real-time image transmitted to them from a camera on the front of the quad to fly a drone around a racecourse. This give the pilots the feeling of actually traveling in the quads as they race against each other and through obstacles. Let's check out which flight modes and video frequencies work best for drone racing.


Blade Mach 25 Arid Teleporter Headset Bundle

Blade Mach 25 Arid Teleporter Headset Bundle Drone Review

Blade's first venture into the world of FPV racing, the Mach 25 FPV Racer looks like It means business. Easy to fly and enjoyable for everyone, this muitirotor comes out of the box completely assembled and ready to bind with your Spektrum radio.

There isjust enough room to get the bind plug into the controller to perform the binding operation without having to remove anything. The battery is mounted in a recess located on the underside of the body using Velcro fastener material.

The small 25mW micro FPV camera system includes a video transmitter, and it works rather well when flying alone. The Lexan frame does move around a bit while flying, but overall, the setup works quite well. And because of the canted motor mounts, landings are a bit easier.

To get started, you will want to get at least 2 to 3 feet high right away before testing things out. The Mach 25's stabilization is very good, and it wants to get up to speed right away. It can quickly get moving if you are not careful.

Control response is really good in the High-Bank-Angle mode, and you could easily race in this mode. But if you're looking for really quick and snappy flying, then the Agility mode is what you want. You'll have a blast scooting around the field. Throw in a few obstacles and another racer and you will be totally hooked on FPV racing. $399.99.


Hitec QuadRacer 280

Hitec QuadRacer 280 Review

This little drone is designed for the new pilot who wants to get into FPV drone racing but doesn't want to spend a lot of time on construction. Out of the box, thisis a very stable flying bird that is easy for any pilot to control. It comes with everything you need to get into the air quickly.

The first thing to do right out of the gate is to start charging the included 3S 2000m Ah battery, along with the included 4.3-inch LCD video monitor. Then it's easy to attach the props and the video antenna. Connect the monitor and install the included AA batteries into the supplied transmitter and you're ready to race!

This quad also comes with a durable clear canopy, which lets you customize your racer to suit your own personal style. The QuadRacer 280 offers high and low rates as well as switches for mild or fast responsiveness. We like the fact that It's ready to fly and doesn't require any flight-controller programming. $399.99.


Lumenier QAV-R 5-inch

Lumenier QAV R 5 inch drone review

This carbon-fiber frame machine is designed for the advanced racer who wants a fast and agile bird. It comes with all the frame parts and bolts and the Lumenier 4Power distribution board. Pilots will have to add their own camera, video transmitter, motors, speed controls, flight controller, battery, and receiver. We found assembly and parts fit to be excellent, and all the boards were easy to solder to.

The quad features a thicker 2mm top plate and Improved removable center X-arm design. ThisIncreases the frame strength and also allowsthe pilot to make a quick arm change during a race if needed.

Some nice touches to this quad are the grommet-holding method for the heavy pigtail, and the cutout and mounting design for integrating the video transmitter into the frame, which works perfectly with the Lumenier TX5G2R Mini 200mW transmitter we used.

By building to the manufacturer's recommendation, the QAV-R had no trouble keeping up with our local racers and easily pulled away from a few. Its power and performance are outstanding. After a few cartwheel landings, we confirm that this frame is extremely durable and well designed. $114.99 (frame only).


Quanum Outlaw 180

Quantum Outlaw 180 Drone Review

The Outlaw 180 isthe latest addition to the Quanum Outlaw Racing Series. Thislittle drone comes almost ready to fly and features a full carbon-fiber frame.It is completely built and ready to plug into your receiver, giving you a great pro-level racer right out of the box.

The only items needed to get it off the ground are a battery, transmitter, and receiver, The quad comes prebuilt with four 20-amp Afro Race Spec speed controls and four Multistar 2204 2300Kv brushless motors all tied up on a single board with a CC3D flight controller.

A small instruction manual gives you the full rundown on programming the flight controller, which uses OpenPilot. Thissets you up with a stable, easy-to-fly setting to get you started. The Outlaw doesn't come with any FPV gear, but FPV racing is exactly what it is built for.

A camera-mount bracket is attached to the front, and the flight controller is attached separately under the frame, leaving plenty ofspace in the middle to accommodate your camera, receiver, and FPV transmitter.

The airframe comes standard with 5-inch props. The basic settingsthat the manual recommends make the Outlaw 180 very stable and easy to fly. If thisis your first FPV racer, we definitely recommend starting with these settings. $167.25.


Rise RXD250

Rise RDX250 Drone Review

Made out of carbon-fiber and foam, the Rise RX0250 comes assembled and ready to accept your receiver and FPV equipment. A 250-size racer, it comes completely built with just about everything to get airborne, All you need is a receiver and battery.

The flight controller, motors, and speed controls are allsecurely mounted and ready to go. LEDs on the bottom help with orientation, and there is even a power plug for your FPV transmitter, which has been soldered in place.

All the key components are surrounded by foam, plastic, or carbon fiber,so there isn't much risk of damaging anything expensive. The landing gear isstrong, but it has plenty of flex, so it won't just break off; it does a nice job of protecting your battery. TheRXD250 can be flown with or without FPV gear, and we were impressed by how well it performed.

Taking off with the FPV gear obviously required a little more throttle, which wasto be expected. Once in the air, it was pretty nimble with both setups. Even in Stability mode, it had a nice response and reacted quickly to our inputs.

It's easy to toss around but still holdsitsline well, For a drone that is built to withstand more crashes and hits, we're impressed overall with how well this 250 handled, $199.99.


Best Flight Mode for Racing

Best flight mode for racing dronesUsing the right mode will make it easy to fly with your connection from the camera mounted on the quad (below) to your goggles(above).

Even basic drones will have several flight modes to choose from. Manufacturers might call them by different names, but their functions are pretty much the same.

There isn't a perfect all-around flight mode, so the one that you choose depends on what you plan to do.

For beginners, Stability mode is the way to go. The gyro will do its best to maintain a steady attitude and altitude (if equipped with a barometric sensor).

At the other extreme, Manual or Aero mode is the least intrusive mode.

Quadcopter gimbal mount camera

This is best left to more advanced pilots because you need to be on the sticks at all times, but it will give you the most flowing feel when flying.

Some models have attitude modes that will let you program tilt limits, allowing you to have some freedom of movement without letting things get too out of hand.

Most experienced drone racers do fly in Manual mode so that they can have complete control.


Video Frequencies

There are four FPV video frequencies to choose from: 5.8GHZ. This is the most common FPV frequency. If the gear is FCC Part 15 certified, it does not require any licensing (most small ready-to-fly drones at your local hobby shop fall into this category).

This frequency has the most choice in channels and uses the smallest antenna. It does, however, have the poorest signal penetration and range.

2.3GHz/2.4GHz. This is a popular frequency for intermediate to long-range setups. It does much better at passing through solid objects, but it prevents the use of a 2.4GHz radio system, so many use the classic 72MHz radios.

1.3GHz. This frequency is very popular when paired with long-range-system radios. Antenna size limits its use on smaller models.

900MHz. Although this frequency seems as if it would be the best choice for those wanting to expand their horizons, It Is very close to cellphone frequencies, so it has a good chance of picking up interference.


Best First Camera Drones

Cameras and drones are a perfect match, giving videographers and photographers a camera angle they didn't have before; we've selected a few of what we think are the best camera drones for beginners.

But before you can produce great-looking shots, you first need to learn the basic flying skills required to create those great images.

After you've mastered those, you can perfect your flying to create specific camera moves used on many feature films; we've highlighted two of the most common aerial techniques.


DJI Phantom 4

DJI Phantom 4 Drone Review

As with its predecessor, the DJI Phantom 4 is mostly a hollow plastic shell, with highly optimized electronics at its core and a fully integrated camera system. It comes preassembled and, after a summary firmware update and system check, will fly right out of the box.

Anybody could fly the Phantom 4 with ease, yet it is intended for intermediate to professional pilots. The basic package comes with a radio, a single battery, a charger, two sets of propellers, a 16GB micro SD memory card, and accessories. DJI also sells a premium kit with two extra batteries and a backpack.

We must also mention the included lens cap/gimbal holder clip, which is both useful and practical, contrary to the one that came with previous iterations of the Phantom, it comes in a durable, compact, reusable, stiff foam case with a handle and a latch that serves both as product packaging and as a practical way of carrying your drone around.

It's large enough to carry the aircraft with three batteries, the radio, and a few spare propellers and accessories. You will need an Android or Apple phone or tablet to display the video (FPV) with on-screen display. $1,399.00 (basic); $2,066.00 (premium with two extra batteries & backpack).


Dromida XL 370

Dromida XL 370 Dron Review

This large Dromida has better flight stability than its smaller counterparts, but it is still a lot of fun to fly. It comes with a 1080p video and photo camera installed, which will store all of those great images on a 4GB memory card.

The Dromida XL comes with everything you need to get it in the air, including an extra set of blades. The only requirement is that you need an Apple or Android device to download the Drone View app.

The three-axis gyro with three accelerometers allow for smooth and stable flight, Programming features include auto takeoff and self-landing with a push of a button. Automatic altitude hold allows for easy hovering, and the bright LED light makes it easy to see the Dromida XL 370.

It comes in four different colors to make flying with your buddies easy. $249.99 (1080p camera RTF).


Traxxas Aton+

Traxxas Aton+ Drone Review

This all-in-one aerial video/camera package with three solid flight modes is ideal for pilots of all levels. Because everything you need is included, this is an aircraft that you can buy and take right to your flying site!

The Aton will arrive in Rim mode for smooth, stable flight, so you can concentrate on getting the aerial shot you want. When you exit a turn or stop abruptly from lateral movement, the quad will slowly return to a hover without jerking to ensure stabilized footage.

Engage Sport mode and you can now fly faster, perform higher banked turns, and do flips. You can also use the higher speed to film faster-moving subjects. In Expert mode, the Aton will do almost anything but fly inverted, and it's impressive when it rips by at full speed.

When you fly upward a bit, hit the trick button and see the rotations the Aton can accomplish. Don't worry about pushing the aerobatlc envelope too hard; the airbrakes do a great job at settling the quad back down to a hover from your high-speed antics.

The included "batwing" 2.4GHz transmitter has a small digital screen, which gives you info such as flight-mode status, throttle level, transmitter-battery level, and flight-battery level.

The induded flight pack with the Aton+ model is a 3-cell 5000mAh LiPo. The model is equipped with a Traxxas High-Current Connector. Without a camera, you can expect up to 20-minute flights; with a GoPro Hero4 you can expect up to 15-minute flights. $419.99.


Yuneec Typhoon H

Yuneec Typhoon H Drone Review

Yuneec's latest release, the Typhoon H, requires minimal assembly time, so you can get in the air within minutes of opening the box. It comes with everything needed, induding the CG03+ camera that comes mounted on a three-axis, antivibration gimbal, it provides stable 4K resolution video and has a no-distortion lens.

It can produce full HD 1080p with slow motion and also has a 12-megaplxel still camera onboard, all of which can be operated from the ST16 controller.

All the camera's settings can be adjusted and controlled while in flight, and the camera offers a 360-degree view once the legs are retracted. Takeoffs and landings can be done automatically, but we found manual operation to be just as smooth.

While we would not recommend that a beginner start out with this particular model, it would be easy to learn how to fly the Typhoon H. It has a maximum flight speed of 22mph, but while filming, we preferred to shoot video at slower speeds (closer to 13mph). A faster speed, however, is perfect for following a quick-moving subject, and we could keep the objects in the frame for longer periods of time. $1,299.00.


Camera Moves

Drone film festival awards

ABOVE : New York City Drone Film Festival (NYCDFF) winner for best showreel: Skynamic Pilot Reel. Learning to fly comfortably at lower alititudes is the first skill every pilot should master.

These two easy drone moves will give your video a professional look

Flying close to the ground

The first drone-flying move that you will need to practice Is learning to fly close to the ground comfortably and smoothly. We're not saying that you should be knocking dew off the wet grass with the camera lens as you fly by, but you do want to have the ability to scoot by your subject at a low angle.

Practice so that you can easily fly in any direction low to the ground: forward, backward, and side to side. Most of these types of shots will be from waist to eye level. A good maneuver to practice is flying horizontal figure-8s, first away from you and then back, then from side to side.

By flying close to the ground, you can create really long versions of a dolly movement, and then by lifting up the drone from close to the ground, you can create a crane shot that offers unlimited upward movement. A separate upward or downward camera movement can also be incorporated into the low-flight shot.


The fly-through

Drone photography the fly through

ABOVE :

NYCDFF winner. Showreel, Skynamic Pilot Reel The fly-through maneuver can be done with a static or moving subject, such as this powerboat (Photo courtesy of Skynamic).

A fly-through shot is a camera-movement technique created by flying the drone toward your subject and then passing right over it as you continue on your flight.

It can be done in a variety of ways: You can fly toward and pass by an oncoming subject, you can fly and overtake a subject traveling in the same direction, or you can fly and overtake a subject going at a different angle from the multirotor.

Instead of flying over your subject, you can also pass on either side (after learning how to fly low comfortably). In addition, you can fly the drone toward the subject at a different angle before overtaking it, while changing course so that the aircraft is traveling in the same direction as your subject.

This lets the audience know where the subject is heading. Finally, a fly-through can also slow down as you approach your subject, travel at the same speed for a period of time, and finally pass over it.