How to Fly a QuadCopter – The Ultimate Guide
When it comes to learning how to fly a quadcopter or drone, you might feel put off by all the seemingly difficult technical jargon used to explain types of drones and their operation. Drones, first utilized by the military, are becoming more commonplace in our airspace, and are increasingly available for purchase online and in stores. Understanding your drone components, what to look for in a drone, the materials needed, and choosing the right price point of your drone, can all be learned with a little time and effort. We plan to cover all these points to ensure your time learning to fly isn't more frustrating than fun.
Looking for a great drone to learn to fly on based on your budget? See our guide below:
Low End (Est. $50)
Mid-Range ( Est. $300 No camera included)
High End (Est. $1400)
Other Drone Buying Guide Resources :
- Best Drones Under 1000 dollars
- The Top 3 Best Drones Under 500 Dollars
- The Best Drones Under 200
- The 6 Best Drones for Kids with Cameras
Drone Terminology You Need to Know
If you are new to quad-copters or drones, you may quickly get overwhelmed with the all the acronyms and terminology surrounding drone technology. Below are some of the commonly used terms to help you understand the basics of the hobby.
An unmanned aircraft that may be remotely controlled or that can sometimes fly autonomously. A quad-copter is a type drone.
Uses lift generated by wings that rotate around a mast, basically any aircraft that obtains its lift from rotors.
A rotocraft with more than two rotors. Some examples include tricopter, quadcopter, hexacopter and octocopter.
UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle)
Another term that covers all drones, a type of aircraft that has no pilot on board.
This a term used to describe a drone that is controlled by four rotors.
Produce thrust that allows aircraft to lift and maneuver.
Controller or Transmitter
Used by the pilot to control the aircraft remotely.
Buttons on the Remote Control that can be used to make adjustments to the pitch or yaw for example. Often used to stabilize and keep aircraft level.
FPV or First-person view
This is simply a term used to describe piloting a device from a first person perspective. With FPV you essentially get a bird’s eye view from the perspective of your drone from a video feed, usually over some type of RF link. FPV drone racing has taken off in recent years. First-person view can be a fun and entertaining way to fly a drone.
Line of Sight (LOS)
Aircraft is visible to the pilot with the naked-eye.
RTH or Return-to-Home
This is a feature where the drone will end its flight and return to its original launch location.
Follow me mode
This feature allows the pilot to lock the drone’s direction and movement onto a moving target. The drone will then automatically follow that target without any the pilot guiding controlling it. This mode can be particularly useful for photography and videography.
This is the same type of global positioning system used in your vehicles navigation unit or cell phone.
A gimbal uses allows helps to keep your video recording device stable and fixed. A good gimbal can help you to get smooth video out of your drone. If you are looking to do any professional level drone photography this feature is a must have!
This mode allows the pilot to operate the drone without worry about the orientation or which direction the drone is facing. This basically means that the drone will follow controls from your perspective at all times. A right command from your perspective, would activate a right turn, still from your viewpoint, and vice versa.
The tilt of the drone or quadcopter forward and back.
The tilt of the drone left or right.
Rotation of the drone or quadcopter in a clockwise or counter-clockwise rotation.
What are the different types of drones?
There are 3 main styles of drones that are available on the market. These drones are commonly abbreviated as RTF, BNF, and ARF. RTF stands for Ready-to-Fly.
RTF Drones or Ready to Fly Drones
RTF drones are great for beginners, as they are pretty much ready to go once out of the box, provided you insert a charged battery first. RTF drones do not require pre-assembly or complex programming before being able to fly it, which takes a lot of pressure off a beginner.
Parrot Bebop (Ready to Fly)
BNF or Bind N Fly Drones
BNF drones are usually the domain of more experienced drone operators. This is because a BNF, or Bind-and-Fly type drone, requires that you already have a transmitter to operate it. BNF drones are typically cheaper because they don't come with a transmitter, so if you are a beginner on a budget, avoid a BNF. Once you get the hang of flying your quadcopter or drone, you may be able to use an older transmitter to operate a newer BNF model, which will save you some cash.
Almost Ready to Fly or ARF drones
ARF drones are for experienced operators, who enjoy the challenge of programming and building up their drone to their unique specifications. ARF, or Almost-Ready-to-Fly drones usually come with parts missing, like the motor. If you like customizing your drone or testing out and tweaking drone features, once you pass the beginner's curve, buying an ARF makes for a fun project. An ARF model can really allow you to let your imagination run wild, and test your technical savvy about how much you really know about building and flying a drone. This type of drone is not recommended for beginner.
Understanding The Basic Drone Components Can Help Make You a Better Pilot
Now that you have an overview of the three main types of drones you will find on the market, we need to break down drone, or UAV components. Drones are also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs for short. A drone contains within its main body a prop and pusher prop, which are responsible for pulling its rotors for movement when utilizing a flight controller. Other components of the drone include a motor, motor mount, receiver, landing gear, boom, battery, ESC, and a camera or sensor. Most drones also contain a GPS module for assisting with navigation and location during operation of your model.
Drone Body Components
Drone Controller or Transmitter
Syma X5C-1 Controller Diagram
Controllers can vary a great deal from each other depending on make and model. There are some basic controller components such as left and right stick, Trim and antennas that are common across many different drone types. With enough flight time and practice a controller can become an extension of you hands and drone flight second nature. Always consult your the manual for your specific model to become familiar with the layout of your transmitter.
Brushed vs. Brushless Drone Motors
As you may have guessed by the name, brushed motors are equipped with brushes that are fixed inside the case and spin when current is supplied to the motor. It is this spinning of the brushes making contact with the motor shaft that causes wear and tear on these motors .
With brushless motors there is much less friction and energy loss, which would slow down the motor like the brushed motors. Brushless motors are quieter and require less maintenance.
Brushless drone motors are more expensive to buy and the wiring can be a tad more complicated. The brushless motors also typically use more costly ESC's or Electronic Speed Controllers.
A drone will contain a gyroscope component, which is part of the inertial measurement unit, or IMU. The IMU (pictured to the right) detects the current acceleration rate, tracking changes like pitch, roll, and yaw. The gyroscope and IMU are both essential components of the flight controller, or central brain of the drone. The motors within a drone are what pull the prop and push prop, controlling the propellers. Most motors are brushless, as they are more efficient, quieter, and contribute to longer battery life.
It is good to assess not only the motors of the drone, to ensure they are clean and free of dust, but also monitor the motor mounts. If screws are too tight in your drone in some areas, it could lead to cracks in the future. Most drones will have some sort of landing gear, but retractable landing gear is a great feature. The boom is responsible for maneuverability and stability of your quadcopter. The main body houses sensors, cameras, the battery, and processing units, so take care it does not get wet, as most drones are not waterproof.
Drone Electronic Speed Controller
The ESC, or electronic speed controllers (pictured to the right), are necessary for varying the speed of the electric motors within your quadcopter. The ESC contributes to power distribution and acts as a brake to the motors and drone. The flight controller is central to the function of flying your drone, responsible for regulating motor speed, steering, controlling autopilot, and communicating with the receiver, battery monitor, sensors, and GPS. Thanks to GPS, most drones can be programmed to have a “fail safe” home point, which gives your drone a safe place to return, in case contact with your remote control is unavailable.
Knowing Where To Fly A Drone Can Save You From Disaster
Flying your drone in restricted airspace such as within 5 miles of an airport can you get you into serious trouble. Keep in mind if you are an experienced drone pilot and are comfortable, you can contact the airport and let me them know that will be flying within 5 miles of the airport. Being knowledgeable about when and where its legal to fly a drone is key to a safe and legal flight.
When figuring out how to fly quadcopter drones, or a UAV, you want to choose an area that is wide open with few obstacles. An clear empty field makes a great place to fly a drone and will also allow you to maintain line of sight to your drone. Flying your drone when the weather is good, with little wind and sunny conditions will provide you a good start for getting the learning curve of your new RTF down.
You can fly your drone in areas where it is acceptable to do so, provided you follow all local laws. You do not want to fly over private property and keep to a distance of 25 feet away from individuals and property. You definitely want to alert your local airport and flight control center if flying your drone within a 5 mile distance of such operations. Choose safety first, by avoiding flying your quadcopter in poor weather conditions, or under the influence of controlled substance. The Academy of Model Aeronautics, or AMA, conveniently offers a list of airspace locations where you can enjoy flying your drone.
When learning how to fly a drone, you first want to get acquainted with the FAA rules. As drones do occupy air space, you will need to be aware of where you can and cannot fly your drone. You will be required to register your drone ( if it is over 0.55 lbs ), in case there are any issues regarding your UAV, as you will be held legally liable. Being prepared by doing your homework before purchasing, and learning about operating your drone safely, will make all the difference in enjoying flying your new quadcopter. It is possible to even use a smartphone app to control some brands of drones, once you get past the beginner curve.
The Federal Aviation Administration has an app called B4UFly that will notify you if you are in a restricted area for flying, such as within 5 miles of an airport. The app also has maps with areas marked that are restricted. A "planning mode" allows you to check flight requirements and restrictions for a specified time and location. Disappointingly, even though the app has the potential to be very useful at this point in time it is simply slow and full of bugs. Until the app gets some major updates, we just can't recommend this app at this time.
How to Fly a quadcopter for beginners
The transmitter for your drone, is critical to the operation of your quadcopter. Outfitted with two joysticks, the right joystick controls the “Pitch” and “Roll,” while the left controls the “Yaw.” Roll describes moving the drone from side-to-side and pitch describes forward and backward. The Yaw depicts the counterclockwise or clockwise movement of your UAV, and the throttle, or up and down movement. The throttle will always be engaged while flying your drone, otherwise the drone will lose power and begin to descend once you take the throttle off.
Below is a simple diagram that shows how the controls relate to Yaw, Pitch and Roll.
How to Get your quadcopter in the air
To get your quadcopter off the ground you will want to slowly press the left control stick away from you until the propellers lift the craft about 5 feet off the ground. Slowly pull the left control stick back toward you to gently land the aircraft. Rinse and repeat until you get a feel for the sensitivity of your quadcopters throttle.
One thing a beginner to drone flying needs to do, is get very good at practicing your rolls. Accidents usually happen, because of lack of control of how far to the right or left one is flying your drone. To roll your quadcopter to the left, simply press the left control stick to the left. The RPM on the two right motors will increase, sending the quadcopter into a roll to the left.
Repeat the process and learn to roll the aircraft to the left.
After you get the roll down, you need to focus on your pitch technique. Pitch determines whether the UAV flies forward or backward. This is especially important if you want to fly your drone without having the Point-of-View of the drone in real time. To pitch forward you simply press the right control stick forward, increasing the RPM's on the rear two motors.
Practice pitching your craft forward away from you (right control stick forward) and then pressing back on the right control stick bring the craft back to you. Practice this simple training technique until it feels natural.
Drone yaw can be one of the more confusing terms for newbies to grasp. Yaw is simply clockwise or counterclockwise rotation of the UAV. The yaw will help you control how much spin your drone has while in the air, and this feature is great for tracking objects or adjusting drone position.
Below is an illustration showing how torque on opposing motors controls left and right yaw.
After you get the basic controls down, its time to practice hovering your craft. Getting the hang of hovering your UAV will help you get a good sense of flight control, in order to take steady photos or video, and assist with landing. The threat of drafts is always present when flying your drone, so start out practicing hovering your quadcopter around 5 feet off of the ground. The closer your drone is to the ground, but not too close of course, the better stability and control you should have. Be patient when practicing hovering as falls can and do happen, but if your UAV is close to the ground, it should mitigate damage.
You will really get the hang of flying your drone if you are willing to practice hovering to take a selfie, practice landing at different targets, and prepare yourself to handle a crash. The wind is going to win in a fight against you and keeping your drone in the air, so avoid bad weather, but be ready for wind gusts. Make sure you follow local laws wherever you are flying your UAV, ensure your battery and transmitter are both fully charged, and definitely make sure your propellers are secure and fastened. Always remember to turn off your quadcopter first, before you turn off your transmitter to prevent unfortunate accidents.
Take short initial flights
It can be tempting to take your multi-rotor to the max distance or "see what it can do". Pushing too far too fast is a good way to end up with a crashed or lost drone. You should practice flying short distances to start out. Start out learning the main controls, practice taking the drone to the left, right, up and down at a safe, short distance.
Drone FPV or First Person view flying
First Person View will allow you to get the same viewpoint of your drone, as if you are manning your quadcopter. However, it is important to get comfortable with roll, pitch, and yaw, if you are not using FPV when flying. FPV is conveniently available, thanks to the camera or video that is mounted to your drone. The FPV works by using radio signal to transmit the viewpoint of your camera in real time.
Below is a video going over many of the techniques we have explained so far.
How to avoid crashing your drone
Seeing your drone about to nose dive into a tree or possibly worse a lake can be one of the worst experiences a drone pilot can face. You may eventually crash your drone, however there are steps you can take minimize the chances of crashes and damages done to your drone.
Read the Manual
If you don't do anything else read your drone's manual. Too many times we have seen new drone pilots go out and fire up their new drone without even opening the manual. The pilot then experiences erratic behavior from the drone or what's commonly referred to as a "fly away". The pilot's drone fly's off into the sun set, never to been seen again.
Check Weather Conditions
Make sure you check the weather before heading out to fly your drone. Not only do you need be concerned with fast moving storms, you also need to check the wind speed and direction. If you are flying with a light weight drone such as the Syma X5C the wind can make for very difficult flight.
Pick your spot
As discussed before, you will want to pick a wide open space, with little or no trees and few people. This will allow you plenty room for maneuvering and allow you to keep a good line of sight with your aircraft.
Keep an eye on your flight time
Watch your flight time and make sure you have enough battery life to make your return trip. You should check your drone's manual to get an idea of how long your battery will last. Some drones will give you an advanced indication that the battery is about to run out.
Ensure your propellers are secured properly and that none of them are damaged or worn. Also inspect the rest of the UAV and repair or replace any damaged parts before taking flight.
Tips to prevent drone fly aways
Fly away's can be caused by faulty hardware or software (firmware), however they are usually caused by a lack of pilot education and/or experience. For instance some drone's require a certain startup sequence. In some cases you must turn on the controller first and then power on the drone. Performing the startup procedure in the wrong order can you serious issues.
- Read your drone manual thoroughly
- If your drone is advanced enough to have firmware, make sure you update it
- Make sure your drone is calibrated before each flight - See your manual
- Ensure you have a fully charged battery and that the battery is fully seated and the connection is tight before flight (this includes the controller batteries)
- Set a GPS lock, so your drone can return to its take off position if something goes wrong, only use return to home as a last ditch effort
- Make sure you perform the proper startup sequence/procedure- This again will be in the manual
What to do if your drone is about to crash
What action to take in a crash depends on the individual situation. Pilot experience and the steps above are your best crash prevention tools. The more time you have taken to get familiar with your drone will pay off in these situations.
- If you see that your drone is going to crash, and there's no stopping it, turn off your throttle immediately. Once the throttle is off, damage will be lessened, because the blades will stop spinning. Remember every situation is different so use your best judgement.
- Definitely try to crash your drone into a nice soft patch of grass, instead of pavement, a building, or into a person.
- As a last ditch effort try using your return to home feature if you have it.
Try to stay calm, and remember not to freak out and ditch your controller, because you are the pilot and crashes happen. Practicing techniques and being prepared, with a helpful encouraging friend alongside, can make your drone flying experience more pleasurable and safe.
What to look for in a beginner drone?
As a beginner, you want to choose a RTF model that has a good combination of moderate price and ease-of-usability. The Syma x5c-1 is an excellent choice for someone new to the hobby. The Syma goes for around $50 dollars, has a great camera and will help teach you the basics of flight.
Many average drone models have around 10 minutes of battery life, depending on the manufacturer and price point. A cheaper drone may cost you in the long run, but it is a good choice for a beginner worried about crashing a lot and who plans on using their drone indoors. Heavier drones are more likely to withstand a crash a little better than a cheaper, lighter weight model.
The more expensive a model, typically the better it will fly and the easier the learning curve, thanks to sensors and construction stability. After you have a gained a little skill, perhaps you will want to move up to a high-end model, with longer range, awesome camera, distance and flight time. You most likely want to invest around $700 for your RTF model, and purchase a quality controller and battery charger. A good controller will allow you to change out the transmitter for your drone, especially if you want to make future upgrades. An RTF drone with more than a few motors is a great choice, in case a motor burns out while operating, and stable landing gear and construction is a must-have quality.
What is the best quadcopter to learn to fly?
When selecting a drone, as a beginner you want an RTF with a moderate weight and good battery life. Many average drone models have around 10 minutes of battery life, depending on the manufacturer and price point. A cheaper drone may cost you in the long run, but it is a good choice for a beginner worried about crashing a lot and who plans on using their drone indoors. Heavier drones are more likely to withstand a crash a little better than a cheaper, lighter weight model.
It is possible to find a good quadcopter under $200. A typical RTF UAV is constructed with an X or H square frame, which lends to stability when operating your drone. Most quadcopters, thanks to its four propeller blades and four motors, are capable of carrying 1 to 2 pounds while in air, and can handle wind speeds up to 15 mph. The accelerometer or gyroscope will help you measure your UAVs pitch, roll, and yaw. You may want to invest in additional batteries if going out with your drone for a long time, as most batteries for drones last 10 minutes.
Drone FAA Registration and Certification
If you are only going to fly your UAV or quadcopter recreationally, you can only fly your drone in the daytime hours, and cannot fly your drone in national parks or directly over people. The FAA charges a nominal fee of just $5, in order to get a commercial sUAS registration number for your drone. The Federal Aviation Administration requires all owners of drones weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds to register their UAV before flying. Your drone must always be within your line of sight, and must never interfere with manned aircraft, or be used to conduct surveillance unless granted permission.
In order to become a certified drone pilot, you need to take a few steps with the FAA. Getting certified can help protect your interests when flying your drone, in addition to helping you learn more about how to fly quadcopter safely. You must be at least 16 years of age, pass an approved aeronautical test, and be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration. If you conduct a pre-flight inspection of your UAV, register it, and obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate, you can become a certified commercial drone pilot. Getting certified will help you lift restrictions on recreational use of your drone, if you desire to fly your quadcopter over 400 feet or at night.
For more information about FAA regulations regarding registration and safe flying practices of your UAV, check out their faq section here. Online Time Magazine, gives a great overview about drones and touches lightly on how they work. Know Before You Fly, offers great advice for beginners, online .
We hope this guide has been helpful and given you a place to start when starting out learning to fly a quadcopter. If your ready to buy your first drone we recommend you start here.
Do you have any other helpful tips or trips for flying a drone? Please let us know in the comments section below.