Written by Jeremy Schmidt
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been fascinated by aviation. I remember watching Top Gun with my family, eager to fly my own plane one day. As I was older and discovered drones, I became just as invested and started flying drones and other RC aircraft like helicopters and fixed-wing for fun. After spending over a decade in the hobby UAV and commercial drone sectors, I have become quite the drone aficionado. At ModalAI, I’m known for not only building and maintaining drones but also flying them with a mastery and precision of a pro. In this blog, I will share the tips and best practices you need to master in order to gain confidence and fly your drone like a pro.
The flight testers at ModalAI and I agree that the best way to get acquainted with your drone is to fly it in manual mode first. This allows you to get comfortable with the different commands and how your drone reacts to them before any level of autonomy is added.
Before You Go: When flying in manual mode, you won’t have autonomous technology to fall back on if you get disoriented with the drone. Because of this, it’s important to understand the basics of flying first. My number one recommendation for novice and experienced pilots is to get comfortable flying with online simulators (SIM). Drones are expensive, so you want to give yourself the greatest chances for success. Most crashes can be avoided with a little bit of skill! Flight simulators are great for honing your piloting skills regardless of what level you’re at. I use my SIM multiple times a week, even after all these years! At ModalAI, we use PX4 Hardware in the Loop to simulate tests online before going out in the field. Simulators like this enable our pilots to get comfortable flying in an environment that replicates that actual field. I really like to push the envelope while using the SIM because I discover new ways to control the aircraft without risking damage to the actual drone. Also, don’t be afraid to try different aircraft on the simulator. I recommend single rotor helicopters. If you can fly one of those, you can fly anything!
First Flight: When you’re ready to get out on the field, it’s important to build your aircraft orientation skills. The best practice I always teach novice pilots is to always operate your drone with the nose facing away from you, so that the direction that your drone moves in is like your stick movement direction. Try mimicking the POV of an airplane pilot who operates from the cockpit; their field of view is at the nose of the aircraft, looking forward. If you operated the drone with its nose facing towards you, commands like left and right would be the opposite.
Try this exercise: Practice placing your drone into “Position Hold” mode to maintain a steady hover, then yaw, or spin, the drone 90 degrees to either side and hold it there. As you let the drone hover in its new orientation, experiment with pitch and roll just to get a feel of how you perceive the drone's movements now that it’s not pointing forward from your POV. Continue this exercise until you get all the way back around.
Off the Field: Just like learning how to drive, you can only get better with more practice. When learning how to fly a drone, I like to encourage new pilots to think about their journey as if they were going through driving school. In order to take the driver’s license test, you need to have at least 50 hours of supervised practice behind the wheel. Here are some exercises you should become comfortable with after you’ve gotten the basics down.
- Slalom patterns: With the drone in position hold mode, fly a slalom type pattern (or “S” turns) with the drone traveling away from you. Then make a U-turn and do the same thing with the drone flying towards you. A little secret is that in “Position hold” mode all you need to do is pitch the drone forward and then apply some “yaw” and the drone will do nice turns automatically! Try it on the SIM first until you’re confident enough to attempt it in real life. This is a great way to improve your flying skills!
- Figure 8s: Once you feel comfortable performing basic turns and flying towards, and away from yourself, try to fly the aircraft in figure 8s. This exercise will test your ability to control the drone. You can practice making tight turns by flying smaller figure 8s and vice versa.
Once you get comfortable with how your drone operates, you can perform precise movements such as hovering your drone over a net. In this example, it takes precise throttle control to make sure the drone doesn’t sit on the net with too much force.
At ModalAI, we create the technology that enables drones with autonomy, so we are always testing in autonomous vs. manual mode. Even though we fly autonomously, we always have a pilot ready to take control of the drone while we are testing new software, hardware, radio and data links. Before you fly an autonomous drone, we recommend you become familiar with flying in manual mode. Good drone pilots are an asset to companies like ours not only for their flight testing abilities but also for saving the company time and money by keeping the drones from crashing whenever the new technology being tested doesn’t go so smoothly during the prototyping phases!
Before You Go:
- Thoroughly read through any instructions or manuals for the flight control system of your autonomous drone. At ModalAI, we use a customized PX4 firmware and parameter set running on our Flight Core and VOXL Flight autopilots. PX4 has an open-source community based website with detailed instructions explaining how to set-up and fly drones running on PX4 firmwares.
- Become familiar with your drone’s initial set up, such as airframe build, ESC calibrations, etc. If you’re using the VOXL m500, you can find our quickstarts on the docs, otherwise visit your aircraft’s open-source firmware site like PX4 or ArduPilot.
- Get familiar with your drone’s hand controller and with using all the switches and/or buttons. Your controller is what you’ll use to put your aircraft into different flight modes, so make sure you know what each button, joystick, or switch triggers; I’ve seen people crash their very expensive autonomous drone just by hitting the wrong button!
Flying for Fun
Whether you’re an engineer who flies drones for developmental purposes at work or a hobbyist who flies on the weekends at parks, you can benefit from flying drones for fun. Local AMA sanctioned RC flying clubs can be a great way to meet fellow drone enthusiasts, practice flying your own drone, and learn new techniques. Most RC clubs have training programs hosted by expert pilots who can coach you through flying drones, helicopters, fixed-wing planes, and several other RC aircraft. The reason I can fly drones like a pro is because I spent many hours after work and on the weekends at my local RC flying club. I had great mentors and became adept at flying because we could use a “buddy box” system, where an expert pilot uses a second controller to take over the aircraft when a beginner loses control. Now, when I train new pilots, I always use the “buddy box” system; it’s a fantastic way to gain confidence and try new techniques to become superb at flying!
Flying Like a Pro
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with your drone’s initial setup, controllers, and feel comfortable trying new exercises, you’ll be well on your way to flying like a pro! Never did I think I would fly an expensive UAV at 100mph inverted while doing a 200 ft. loop, but after hours of practice (virtually and in-person), I can confidently maneuver my unmanned aircraft in this manner. Now that you know the secrets to pro drone flying, go out there and fly high!
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