Section 6 – Flying a Quadcopter
Preparing to Fly
It’s an exciting day!
Your new quadcopter is unpacked and sitting on the table in front of you. The first order of business is going to be to charge up the batteries. Most of the low cost drones come with a USB cable that connects to the battery and provides the charge. Some come with a plug-in AC charger. Either way, get your batteries charged up ASAP so you can get your quad up and running. Note – do not charge the batteries up more than 3 days before you plan to fly as they lose some charge over time. Batteries which are not going to be used soon are best left in a less than fully charged state.
Your transmitter needs a couple batteries also – AA or AAA. Make sure you have these on hand.
While your batteries are charging, scan your owners manual as well as any online reviews of your quad model. Some of the manuals are quite poor in their translation from Chinese to English, so don’t expect to understand every word. If you find a decent online review (such as on our droneflyers.com site), it will likely instruct you how to get started with your new toy.
Note: LiPo batteries should be charged on a fireproof surface – it is remotely possible for them to self ignite! Keep them away from loose papers and other combustibles and charge inside an ash tray, small bowl or similar container. PLEASE READ OUR SAFETY APPENDIX BEFORE CHARGING OR FLYING YOUR QUADCOPTER.
Becoming Familiar with your Transmitter
Most quads are sold with a transmitter (also called TX or Remote) which is set up as “mode 2”. This means that the throttle is on the left while the right stick controls the pitch and roll (forward/backward and left/right) of the drone. A typical TX panel is shown below:
The left stick controls the speed of the propellers and therefore is set all the way back (down) before flying. The right stick should be centered for testing and most liftoffs. The small silver switches, two under the sticks and two toward the center, are for trimming the quadcopter so it hovers without drifting off to one direction or another.
Booting up your Drone
Caution – the spinning propellers on ALL quadcopters could cut or injure humans or pets! We’ll discuss safety in more detail as we go along, but please take basic common sense precautions when using your new quadcopter and charging your LiPo batteries. Most importantly, avoid any situation where people or pets could come into contact with an operating quadcopter.
Read your owner’s manual for full instructions on your particular models – here are the usual steps involved in booting a mini or micro drone.
1. Have transmitter ready and powered with the specified batteries (usually AA or AAA). Make certain that the throttle (left stick) is off (down fully toward you).
2. Insert quadcopter LiPo battery into quadcopter frame as shown in manual.
3. Connect battery leads – note, some batteries auto-connect when you insert them.
4. Immediately set the quad down on a flat and level surface. This step is especially important as many quads use their initial position as a reference for how straight and level they will fly. (certain newer models may not require this flat surface)
5. Turn on the transmitter – most will go through a series of beeps and then stop beeping. This indicates the transmitter is “bound” to your quadcopter. It is often necessary to move your throttle stick forward and backward once to arm (unlock) your quadcopter. A beep often indicates that the quad is armed and ready to fly. Certain models require other actions to arm them – this will be detailed in the owner’s manual.
Your quadcopter is ready to fly – are you? Probably not, so let’s go through a series of short checks so we don’t run into many surprises.
NOTE: Some models use the opposite method of turning on – that is, you turn on the TX first and then install the battery and/or turn on the switch on your quadcopter. Check your manual for details on your model. Also, some newer models self-calibrate so do not need to be set on a level surface.
Testing your Quadcopter
The first-time pilot should continue slowly so that their craft (or the family cat) is not damaged too quickly. One testing technique involves weighting the quad down so it does not fly and then slowly checking all the transmitter functions. Here are a series of steps to do so:
1. Place a small weight, such as a wrench, etc. so that it holds your quad down (near the center) without being near the spinning propellers. Depending on the particular model, you may have to use a small piece of string, wire or a rubber band to hold the weight to the center of the quad
2. STAND BEHIND THE QUADCOPTER FACING IN THE SAME DIRECTION AS ITS NOSE. Slowly apply power to the propellers by pushing the left stick (throttle) forward. The propellers should spin up and increase in speed as you push the throttle up. Do not push the stick all the way forward, just enough to start getting the feel of the controls.
3. Once you are comfortable with the spinning props, test the basic functions of the right stick on your transmitter. This stick is normally centered – pushing forward on it should make the drone lean (with the weight on) in the forward direction of flight, while pulling back should do the opposite. Pushing the right stick to the left should make the quad lean left, while pushing it to the right should make it lean right.
An alternative method of testing is to use a small length of string or thin rope to tether your quadcopter to the ground. You can then test takeoff and basic stability while being sure the machine will not fly away and crash.
If all is well, your quad and you are ready to attempt flight…after a short technical break.
For Pilots, Nerds and other know-it-alls
The various directions in which an aircraft can moves each have distinct names – as do the usual flight controls which make the vehicle take these actions. The testing phase above describes two axis of movement, those being forward and backwards and left and right. The following definitions will apply:
Pitch – this describes the angle of the quadcopter as relating to level, whether front to back or side to side.
Aileron – this is the flight control used to make the quadcopter lean left or right – the actual movement is called “roll” or “banking”.
Elevator – this is the flight control used to make the quad angle up or down when facing forward. Pitch is the term used to describe the effect of the elevator on the nose of the aerial vehicle.
Rudder – This describes the flight control which makes the quad rotate on its center axis – that is, stay level and spin on its center axis (as in dance pirouettes).
Since a quadcopter is computer controlled, there are no actual flaps as with a fixed wing aircraft. If your quadcopter were an airplane, the elevators would be the tail flaps and the ailerons the wing control surfaces. Instead, control is achieved by varying the exact amount of power to each of the rotors.
Whew! I’m glad that’s over with – now let’s get back to flying.
Lifting off and Hovering
Remove any weights which you may have used to hold your quad to the ground during testing. Ideally, you are outside over grass for your first flights as the inevitable crashes are unlikely to do as much damage.
Next, while standing behind the quadcopter, slowly apply power to the throttle by moving it forward. Continue applying power until your machine lifts off the ground. It’s best to initially raise the quad 2 to 3 feet off the ground, as they can be quite unstable when very close to floors, walls and ceilings. You want to get it high enough to be in “free air”. Ideally, your quad will hover and not move too quickly in any direction. This indicates that your gyro is properly set. However, if you are practicing in a confined area, it could take some time to get the hang of hovering.
If your quadcopter seems erratic and moves quickly in any direction without your steering it, you should land it, disconnect the battery, and then reconnect it – making 100% certain that you are on a perfectly level surface. Then try again – you should not attempt to fly until you can hover within a small area – say about 6 X 6 feet. This may require small amounts of stick input from your right stick. If you are, as instructed, standing behind your quadcopter, the right stick should steer the quad as shown below.
The left stick is the throttle (up-down) AND, when moved left and right rotates the craft on its axis.
Depending on your level of coordination and previous experience with similar types of controls, it may take quite a few attempts before you are able to hover properly. Many of your first flights will be taking off and then landing quickly when you feel the quad is out of control. Don’t fret – practice makes perfect and you will succeed after enough attempts. Take baby steps because attempts to fly far and fast will definitely result in losing or destroying your quadcopter.
Note: We have written a number of articles which you can find on our blog & forum at droneflyers.com
Youtube will also be a good source of videos about your specific model.
Trimming your Quadcopter
If your quadcopter seems to drift in the same direction constantly or spin on its axis, you may need to trim your transmitter slightly. Most transmitters have four switches which can be nudged in one direction or the other to help the quad hover in a more centered fashion. As one example, if the quadcopter tends to drift forward, the two middle switches could be pressed down a few clicks to favor the opposite direction. Note: do not use trim unless you are 100% sure that the quadcopter has been initialized (started) on a flat and level surface. Trim is only for making very small adjustments – if your drone is heading very quickly in one or another direction, it is likely the problem is elsewhere such as failing motors or stripped gears.
Read your manual regarding the trim buttons as they differ with various models.
The Next Steps
Once you can successfully hover, it’s time to fly further away from the nest! This will familiarize you with the way your quadcopter responds to movement of your control sticks. Ideally you’ll have an outdoor area at least 50 feet square for micro and mini quads. Your first exercise should be to fly your quad directly away from you – forward – by pushing the right stick slightly forward. Of course, you also have to keep the perfect amount of pressure on the left throttle stick – quadcopter flying is multitasking – you may also have to correct the course of the quadcopter to the left and right using the right stick (left/right movements).
Fly 10-20 feet forward and then pull slowly back on the right stick to bring the quad back toward you. As with hovering, this may take you some time to master – but don’t give up! It’s all a matter of training your brain and reflexes – similar to driving a car, which would be near impossible if you hadn’t put in so many hours of repetition.
Landing your Drone
Unless you have an advanced model with automatic landing, you are going to have to learn the technique of gently lowering your machine back to the earth. One way or another, each takeoff means one landing – although many are what we call “unscheduled landings” (crashes). Landing can be harder than it seems, especially on 3 or 4-axis craft which must be perfectly level in order to avoid the propellers hitting the ground before the landing gear touches. Practice on a soft surface such as short-cut grass or carpet. Lift your quad a few feet off the ground and gain control so that you hover under control – then slowly back down on the throttle until the drone nears the ground.
It’s VERY important to cut the throttle 100% during crash or hard landings, as keeping power to the blades and motors when they strike grass or the ground may harm them. Most of the beginner quadcopters can drop from a few feet up (or even higher!) onto a soft surface with absolutely no damage – unless you keep the throttle on!
Next Steps in Flying
Once you are confident in the basics, you can start practicing other moves. Successful piloting of any aircraft or motor vehicle requires the ability to do a number of things at the same time. This will eventually come naturally, but you have to train your brain and your muscles first. Here are some of your first challenges:
1.Orientation – it’s easier to fly your quadcopter when it faces the same direction as you do – but when it’s facing you or another direction, the sticks will work differently – often in the opposite way as previously! Practice these moves so that you become more confident in your ability to control the craft no matter what the direction of flight.
2.Banking – many pilots find that learning how to fly loops or figure 8’s is very instructive, as you can practice using more than one stick input at a time.
3.Spacial awareness – it’s important to get a grasp on distances, directions, compass headings as well as wind and weather. Just as sailors and pilots know these things, so should anyone piloting a drone.
4.Bringing the quadcopter down from heights – is usually best done while moving it forward at the same time. Descending quickly into your own “prop wash” (air currents made by your propellers) can result in unstable flight.
Don’t get discouraged – keep at it! Keep in mind that fancier drones have systems which actually make them easier to fly. Learning how to fly your toy drone should be considered boot camp and what you learn will come in handy later.
Continue to practice your landings until you are very confident that you can place your craft where you want it. Set up landing target zones around your practice area and try to land on them. Then, as you hone your skills, try to land in the center of the target.
Once you master taking off, hovering, landing and basic forward and backward flight, it’s time to combine some of your moves. Watch some of the youtube videos on quadcopters and you will see experienced users doing banked turns and figure 8’s. It takes many hours of practice to master these turns and it won’t happen if you are worried about crashing an expensive drone! Use a micro or mini drone with prop guards and fly outside over grass if possible. It won’t matter how many times your machine hits the deck. Dust it off and try again.
Do you have the “Right Stuff”?
At some point it may become evident that the Air Force would probably not pick you as a candidate for their Top Gun flight school. Don’t fret – all is not lost! If you find that manual flying is too difficult for you to master, you still have many options to enjoy the quadcopter hobby and pursuit. Many of the newer (and future) quadcopters have stabilization features and some can even be programmed for autonomous flight – that means they will take off, fly around a field by themselves, and then land within a few yards of their takeoff point!
The main thing to keep in mind if you are all thumbs, is to research and buy the proper machines for your capabilities and needs. Models such as the DJI Phantom have loads of intelligence programmed into them. More advanced models take some, but not all, of the piloting load off the operator.