Flying Drones- A Beginners Guide
Intrigued by Quadcopters? A quick search on YouTube will reveal a wide selection of videos from radio-controlled (RC) multi-rotor model aircraft known as quadcopters or drones. These incredible aircraft rely solely on horizontal propellers (rotors) to provide both lift and directional control. While most multi-rotors have four propellers, hence the name “quadcopters” or just “quads” for short, some drones have six or eight rotors for additional lift. In this article I’m going to give you a brief idea about flying drones and things to note before buying one for yourself.
Despite their notably ugly, or less than aerodynamic appearance, quadcopter drones are unique for their vertical take of and landing ability, their steady hovering ability and for capturing photographs and video footage from high vantage points. Many of them can also lift a surprisingly heavy payload (not tons, but enough to lift a small package or a good quality camera). With the quads unique ability to hover in place and fly in confined spaces, quadcopters can often a flying experience that cant be mimics by traditional R/C controlled airplanes, helicopters or ground based drones. Spend some time on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Not only that, but quads are much easier to learn to fly and a fun with or without a camera attached.
But before you rush out and buy a drone of your own, there are a few things you should consider. First, drones can be dangerous if flown without their rotor guards on. Those fast spinning rotors are capable of inflicting a surprising amount of injury and/or damage if they hit something or someone…one writer referred to them as a “flying Cuisinart”.
Second, drones require practice and skill to fly successfully.think“juggling”, it looks simple until you try it. While learning to fly a quadcopter is much easier than any other RC controlled aircraft, there is a learning curve and some element of frustration involved before you become an ACE. But after a few days of practice, most people feel very comfortable at the controls.
Third, some people get freaked out by drones or quads because they are concerned they can be used to take candid photographs that would not otherwise be possible to get. Make sure your neighbors are understanding before you start flying drones over the backyard fence to see what theyre grilling on the barbecue.
The Anatomy of a Quadcopter
Like with all RC vehicles, a quad has two basic components to deal with: a transmitter and the vehicle itself. The transmitter or controller is the device you hold to control the quad in the air. A quad transmitter is the standard two-joystick box that can also be used to control RC airplanes, boats, cars, trucks and helicopters. Moving the left joystick up or down changes the power setting on all four motors and makes the quad climb, descend, or maintain altitude. Moving the left joystick to the left or right causes the quad to yaw in that direction (i.e., it pivots about an imaginary vertical axis through the center of the vehicle). The right joystick controls pitch and roll. Simply put, whatever direction you move the right joystick will command the quad to tilt and translate in that direction.
Most quads are arranged in an X configuration (when looking from above) with a motor/propeller at each corner. A rechargeable lithium polymer battery provides power for the motors and the electronic equipment on-board the quad. As a beginner, it isnt really necessary to understand the function of all of a quad’s electronics. That will come as you get more into the hobby. For now, you just need to understand that the four motors work in unison, at different speeds, to keep a quad hovering and maneuvering through the air.
How to Fly a Quadcopter?
One aspect of RC flight that gives beginners trouble is the light touch that most quads and other RC aircraft require. Most beginning pilots tend to over-control and then over-correct. The result is a jerky flight that often does not end well for the quad. Watching videos from these flights can make you airsick. The key is to learn to fly with a very gentle touch.
Another hurdle for beginning pilots is overcoming the perspective of being outside the model. For example, when the quad is in front of, and facing away from you, everything seems normal. Right is right, left is left and forward is forward. However, when the nose of the quad is pointing towards you the perspective changes. Now, when you command the quad to fly to the right, you will see it fly to your left. When you command it to fly backward, it will fly forward. The quad is still responding to your command correctly, it’s just that your right/left and front/back and the quads are no longer the same.
When I was getting started the hardest thing about flying a quad was keeping track of which end was the front and which was the rear. Because quads dont have wings, or an aerodynamic shape that give you a clue, it is often difficult to know which side if the front and which is the back, especially when the drone is 500 feet away from you. This often led to confusion about how to control or direct the quads flight. Commanding the quad to fly right when you meant left is the root cause of many crashes.
While there is a learning curve to flying a quad , I have never met anyone who didnt eventually get the hang of it. Most catch on rather quickly…especially kids. It just takes getting in some flight time, being patient, and learning from your mistakes. And yes, that also means a occasionally making repairs to your quad after a crash.
How To Get Started with Flying Drones?
Logging flight time does not mean that you have to fly put an expensive, camera-equipped quadcopter and put it at risk. That would be like learning to juggle using your mothers fine china. A more sensible option is to get a RC flight simulator for your PC. The one I like is RealFlight 6.5, which includes a quad in its stock database of simulated aircraft. Whats very important, is that RealFlight includes a USB controller with the same look and feel as a RC transmitter. This helps to make the transition from virtual flight time to real world flying a breeze. But the most important thing is, no matter how badly you crash the virtual quad on the screen, you can press the reset button and instantly get a new one!
Another great way to learn to fly a quad is to purchase an inexpensive mini or micro quad. These are small (about 5”x 5”) quadcopters that look and fly much the same way the larger quads do, but only cost around $40. The advantage of learning on a micro quad is that they are so light and their motors have so little power, their tiny propellers are very unlikely to cause any harm when you smack them into something, which you will!
My first quad was a Hubsan X4 . I started with this one because it is a hobby grade micro quad, as opposed to “toy or throw away model. This means you can get spare parts and repair it if you damage it. Its safe to say my little Hubsan X4 took quite a bit of abuse as I flew it into things (including getting lodged in a tree and stuck on my roof) as I learned the basics of quads. Even with my mediocre mechanical skills I was able to keep it flying by replacing nothing more than the occasional broken propeller.
A great thing about micro quads is that you can fly them indoors. To parphase the U.S. Postal Service, neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night shall impede you from your training and flying pleasure. As I said, you will bump into things as you learn (and even afterward) so be sensible and stay away from pets, kids, the Ming vase in the living room…you get the idea. Oh, and turn off the ceiling fan! I lost one mini-drone to those blades of death. Other than exercising a few precautions, there is little to worry about. As your piloting skills progress, you can challenge yourself with increasingly difficult tasks. You may start out just trying to land on your desk. In time, you’ll be chasing old Fido around the living room.
The Next Step
Once you feel that you have the hang of flying drones, it’s time to upgrade to something capable of carrying a high quality camera. It is worth mentioning that there are some micro quads with integrated cameras (including the V-Cam version of the 1SQ). These quads are also a lot of fun and you can get some good experience tackling the challenges of filming without the benefit of a viewfinder. Just don’t expect the image quality to meet the level that weve become accustomed to from GoPro and similar cameras.
Beyond micro quads, there is a lot of room to grow in terms of cost and capabilities, but let’s focus on the next logical step. The DJI Phantom is a very popular quad that is capable of carrying a GoPro camera. The Phantom includes all of the things that you want in an intermediate quad: attitude stabilization, brushless motors, a GPS unit, a built-in GoPro mount, etc. What has made the Phantom so popular is that all of these components come preconfigured and integrated as a flight-ready system. You can bring home a Phantom and have it flying in the time it takes to charge the included battery (about an hour).
If you choose to buy a Phantom, I think you will agree that it is considerably easier to fly than a micro quad. I’ve found the Phantom’s stabilization and position-holding ability to be rock solid. I can park it in the sky and take my hands off of the joysticks. Even if there is a light breeze, the Phantom will stay in place until I command it to go somewhere else.
Unlike micro drones, the Phantom has enough mass and horsepower to cause grief when you hit something with it, so play it safe and find a nice open field for your first flight. You will appreciate the elbow room until you get comfortable flying the Phantom. But whenever you fly you should always ask yourself “Is it safe to fly here?”
Some makers will shun the turnkey approach afforded by the Phantom, since its an all-in-one package that works out of the box. Fortunately, DJI and other companies offer many quads in kit form. This lets you choose the components you want and customize the quad to your liking. Taking the DIY route also provides you with an intimate knowledge of how the different components of a quad work in unison to achieve controlled flight.
You may find that a Phantom/GoPro combo is all that you need to satisfy your aerial photography ambitions. For many fliers, however, this stage is a gateway to more capable set-ups. One popular upgrade is to add a First Person View (FPV) system. FPV provides a real-time video downlink from the quad. When you connect that downlink to a portable screen or video goggles, you get the same bird’s eye view as the onboard camera…neat stuff for sure. FPV systems are often coupled with a two-axis gimbal that lets you pan and tilt the camera during flight. Just be aware that most FPV systems require a HAM Technician license to operate legally.
GoPro Heroes are awesome little cameras that will serve you well. If, however, you yearn to carry higher end video equipment, there is probably a multi-rotor to fit the bill. The cost and complexity of these aircraft climb accordingly. Most of the larger multi-rotors have six or eight motors. Some of these units can run several thousand dollars (without video equipment). It’s a matter of balancing your budget and skills with the image quality that you aim to achieve.
Finding a Sense of Community
With the ever-growing popularity of quads, there’s no reason to jump in to the hobby alone. Unless you live way out in the boonies, there is probably an established quad flyer not too far away. Search for flying drones clubs and hobby shops in your area to get started. Most RCers are happy to share their knowledge and experience. There are also numerous online forums that discuss all aspects of quads and other RC endeavors. One good one is RCGroups.com. You might also like to join the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), the national organization that provides a community for all types of modelers. In fact, AMA membership is a prerequisite for joining most local RC clubs.
This intro guide is light on technical information. I hope, however, that it will help you to avoid some common mistakes and get you started in the right direction. Flying drones is a lot of fun, and shooting awesome pictures and cool videos only sweetens the deal. It just takes a little bit of training and situational awareness to be successful. So fly where no drones have flown before and have fun!