Flying safely, knowing your limits, and understanding how your drone works are essential when taking aerial photos or videos. As a drone enthusiast, I’ve seen my fair share of “drone fail” videos on YouTube, many of which result in awful, not to mention expensive, crashes. Most of these crashes could have been avoided by taking some simple safety precautions.
I’ve been flying drones professionally for some time now, and I’d like to share 15 easy steps (among others) you can take to prevent crashing. I mostly fly the Phantom 4, but all these tips can be applied to the Mavic Pro, Spark, or any other drone. It’s better to be safe than sorry! You don’t want to learn some of these the hard way like I did.
- Before you fly, practice in the DJI GO simulator! I recommend doing so for at least two hours. Get used to the controls, and pay close attention to which way the aircraft is facing. If the nose is facing towards you, it will move right when you expect it to move left. As such, it’s a good idea to fly with the nose facing away from you.
- Read the user manual twice! I‘ve downloaded it from the official DJI website and printed it out.
- At first, don’t fly over 30-40 m and get used to the controls. Don’t mess with the camera and don’t think about pictures. As an avid photographer, ignoring the camera was difficult, but the most important thing when you start out is learning to control your drone.
- Practice using the Return to Home function. Reread the section in the manual on how it works, long press the “H” button, and see how it works first-hand. Understand that you’ll need GPS signal before you takeoff for the function to work, and check for a green H on your map.
- Set the Return to Home Altitude to over 100 m (I have it at 150m) in DJI GO to ensure your drone doesn’t hit any trees or buildings on its way home. I also recommend setting a max distance and altitude that’s less than the maximum allowed value for both. You may be tempted to push your drone to its range limit, but this can be unnecessarily risky. Keep your drone within line of sight to avoid potential collisions.
- Watch out for power lines, wires, and tree branches during flight. The obstacle avoidance sensors can’t detect thin objects, so you’ll need to avoid them yourself. Especially during your first flights, it’s a good idea to be accompanied by a friend who can keep an eye on the drone so you can focus on your smartphone screen. Two pairs of eyes are always better than one!
- When you take off, use the automatic take off function and then let the drone hover at 1m at for about 30 seconds. This helps the battery warm up, and if the battery has issues, you’ll notice them while you’re hovering. Plus it’s better to crash 1 m above the ground than from 100 m.
- In winter when outside temperatures fall below 10° Celsius, turn the rotors on and let the battery warm up until its temperature reaches over 25° C. You can check the battery’s temperature in DJI GO.
- Don’t fly backwards or avoid it as much as possible. Even with the P4P’s backward-facing obstacle sensors, like I mentioned before, they won’t avoid thing objects like tree branches and wires.
- In case you didn’t get this already, don’t rely on the obstacle sensors. Although they can be a life-saver in some situations, they don’t detect everything and they won’t work in low light.
- Don’t fly in areas with strong interference (like near large metal objects) and do not take off under high-voltage power lines.
- Whatever you do, don’t pull both control sticks to the bottom inner or outer corners. This stops the engines mid-air if held for more than a few seconds! It is a failsafe function and only should be used if you’re about to crash. This stick combination, known as the Combination Stick Command or CSC, works with the Phantom 3 and Phantom 4 running older firmware versions. Recent firmware versions and products have changed the emergency stop commands. But nonetheless, read about emergency motor stopping in your drone’s user manual.
- Avoid flying when it’s windy. Any small drone is unstable in the wind, and DJI drones don’t take wind speed into account when calculating the time it takes to return home. So if you’re far away, you may not be able to make it back to the home point in time if winds are strong. To measure the wind speed, you can buy an anemometer for as low as $30-40.
- Certain bird species are disturbed by drones. Some even try to defend their territory by attacking drones. YouTube is full videos where pilots have hostile encounters with seagulls or raptors that result in bad endings for the drones. So, don’t fly near large groups of birds and do your best to avoid disturbing them.
- Just like in commercial aviation, takeoffs and landings are the most risk-prone stages of flight. Especially when landing, make sure your landing spot is free of obstructions and is relatively level. Keep in mind where the wind is blowing and be aware your drone may drift a bit in that direction. And if think you need to land on sand or a puddle of water, don’t! Hand catching is possible, though it is a bit risky for new pilots. Look up some tutorials on YouTube before you try it yourself.
So, those are the basic tips I’ve learned from my experience flying. This is by no means everything you need to know to become a master drone pilot, but it’s a pretty good start.
Now, get out there and start flying safely!