Congratulations! You got a drone this holiday. Now what?
First things first: Learn how to safely and responsibly pilot your new aircraft. Follow these essential rules, guidelines, and checklists — excerpted and updated from our new Make: book, Getting Started with Drones — and let the FAA (and the neighbors) worry about someone else while you enjoy your flights. Our book shows you how to build and fly a Little Dipper quadcoptor, a perfect starter kit for aspiring aerialists!
Above All Is Safety
There’s a reason we hear the term “safety first” so often in our daily lives: doing what you can to protect the wellbeing of yourself and others is more important than any piece of equipment or task to be completed. Building and flying your hand-built small UAV safely and responsibly will ensure your continued ability to take part in this endeavor for a long time. Those who persevere in building and flying small UAVs understand the importance of taking safety seriously. By doing so, they are respecting and representing the model aircraft and UAV community as a whole.
With these concepts in mind, taking part in aerial robotics is an outstanding way to learn or gain discipline. You must dedicate yourself to being mindful of consistently doing all that is needed to best produce successful and safe results in all possible ways.
Training and Education
A big part of staying safe while exploring multirotors is learning as much as possible about their technology and potential risks. New advances in small UAV technology in the areas of autonomous control and safety are being developed all the time, and staying up-to-date on these developments can keep your flights safe. However, we do not recommend relying on automated flight control modes. GPS locking and stabilization mode are fantastic features, but should any equipment fail to send or receive commands, a responsible operator knows how to take over manual flight of their aircraft. There’s no substitute for building your own level of content knowledge, experience, and practice time “on the sticks.”
Key Flight Safety Rules
Safe and responsible flight should always be your No. 1 concern when preparing to take to the air. Become familiar with the following items, and you will be well on your way to sharing the skies with those around you:
- Always fly below 400 feet. Full-scale aircraft fly above 500 feet. This creates a 100-foot buffer zone in the airspace between manned and unmanned aircraft.
- Fly your aircraft within line of sight (LOS). This means you are constantly able to see your aircraft while operating it. From our experience, looking at your aircraft in the same direction as the sun can make visibility difficult. Think about the time of day and desired direction where you will be stationed. Colored landing gear or LED lights help identify the front and back of the multirotor, which assists in maintaining your orientation. See the note below this section on safely flying using FPV goggles.
- Join a local club for UAV or model aircraft enthusiasts. If that is not possible in your area, create your own MeetUp group to discuss safe and responsible developments on best practices of UAV flight.
- Never fly within five miles of any airport, within three miles of large stadiums between an hour before and after events, and not at all in national parks or military bases. Check out this interactive map that identifies the no-fly zones.
- Take a flight lesson. This will help to reinforce the principles of flight, and it will let you experience navigating the airspace from a full-scale pilot’s point of view. You may also be able to find a local course on operating small unmanned aircraft.
- Always inspect your equipment to make sure every component is in proper working order prior to every flight.
- Do it for fun! Don’t fly for commercial purposes without authorization from the FAA. You should have years of experience before this should be a concern, anyway. Insurance on your aircraft is not required for recreational use, but having it is a great idea. If you join the AMA flying club, limited insurance coverage is included in the membership. Insurance is a requirement for commercial use.
- Never fly recklessly. Not only is it dangerous, and disrespectful to the people and property in the area, but you may be issued a citation and a hefty fine. Fly safely.
Many multirotor enthusiasts love to fly first-person view (FPV) using video goggles that give the pilot the sense of sitting in the cockpit. A small camera mounted to the front of the UAV allows for a real-time view from the perspective of the drone. FPV flight is growing fast in popularity thanks to organized, competitive minidrone racing. Here are some tips:
- Bring a friend with you to act as a spotter. You need someone to be your second set of eyes to keep the copter within line of sight and alert you to anything that may interfere with your flight path.
- Clearly communicate what video channel/frequency you are using with any other FPV flyers nearby to avoid interference in your reception and visibility.
- Go to a wide-open, secluded location away from people, property, roads, and power lines.
- Avoid bringing children or pets out to the FPV flying field area because they may unknowingly enter your flight path.
- Follow all of the other safety guidelines outlined in the previous section.
Where and When to Fly
Planning is a critical step in safe, successful flight. There is a saying: Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail. There are many things to consider before your maiden flight and every takeoff thereafter. We use a preflight checklist to be certain that we have gone over all functions necessary for our planned mission. You can use your favorite productivity app to generate your own preflight checklist. Many are available in the online app stores. The to-do list app we have enjoyed using is Wunderlist. It syncs easily across multiple platforms. It’s also free, which is nice. See the next section for specific points of information you may want to include in your preflight checklist.
We also like to use the 3D feature in Apple Maps to plan our missions. You can view a perspective very close to what you are trying to achieve while in flight. Time of day and lighting features may also be important to you, if for no other reason than to ensure you’re not looking directly into the sun while visually tracking your UAV.
The best way to identify potential risks is in person. We like to visit a location in advance to see if there is enough space, and if the location presents any possible hazards. Develop a plan to best mitigate risks to such a degree that is tolerable to all involved with the flight area. You likely need to get a permit or at least permission to fly in an area, even if it appears to be an empty field. If you own your own very large yard, you have the ideal setup for stress-free, regular practice space, as long as it is five or more nautical miles from any major airport. Finally, U.S. national parks are (at the time of this writing) considered no-fly zones. We hope this changes at some point in the future. At the very least, we would hope to see procedures put in place for aerial photographers to obtain a permit to access national parks under the rules of the National Park Service.
Preflight Checklist and Flight Log Information
Just as in full-size aircraft, preflight checklists and flight logs are essential to maintaining a safe aircraft and flying environment. Be certain to note:
- Date and time.
- Location and safe takeoff/landing area established.
- Operator and any flight team members such as spotters or camera operators.
- All wiring and hardware connections are secure.
- Aircraft, radio and channel, flight modes/settings.
- Propellers and batteries used. We like to label and track each battery’s usage.
- GPS: Number of satellites locked in.
- Weather, sun direction, wind direction, and speed. Maximum safe wind speeds depend on the weight and design of your aircraft. For example, the Little Dipper is very light at two pounds, so it is best to fly it below 10 miles per hour. Heavier multirotors can handle stronger wind. Also, avoid precipitation. Water and electronics do not mix well.
- Purpose/subject, mission, and contact person.
- Potential dangers and plan for handling each.
- Elevation/speed reached.
- Payload secure — best to start off payload-free.
- Camera settings and memory card with available space.
- Flight length and observations — did anything irregular occur regarding the equipment or experience?
Try your absolute best to fly away from anyone, but avoiding every person can sometimes be difficult. If any spectators are present during a flight, establish a safe takeoff and landing zone. We keep a minimum of 30 feet between our UAV and any person or thing. We like to use safety cones to mark our safe zone perimeter. You could also use an extra large tarp with cones weighing down the corners. A tarp can keep dirt out of your UAV’s sensitive electronics too. Creating a physical line of safety using rope, poles, paint, or field-lining powder is a great way to keep spectators at bay.
If you have a spotter with you, have her talk to anyone nearby to let them know what you are doing, to direct spectators to stay away from the flight zone, and to always be aware of where the UAV is. Remember, flying near large stadiums with crowds in the stands is prohibited by the FAA an hour before and an hour after an event is scheduled (as well as during the event itself, of course).
Actively look out for any cables in the flight area. Power lines in the air, and even loose cables on the ground, can be very dangerous while flying. Outstretched tree branches, light poles, and architectural features can also pose a threat. Keeping your distance and avoiding them entirely is the only way to completely avoid the risk associated with these types of things.
Making assumptions can lead to making a big mistake. Never assume that everything on your multirotor is working great simply because you saw it fly flawlessly yesterday. Always do a systems check before each flight. Testing is certainly a constant in this hobby. A more thorough inspection with regular routine maintenance, along with the accompanying documentation, is a good idea as well.
Test the motors and settings without the propellers. Lastly, add the propellers, stand back, and do a prop-directional test. If you notice anything wrong, or had to repair/alter anything, document it on the spot.
Review your battery procedures, including their age, how they are handled and stored, and whether they are intact or have unused charge, which can all have an effect on LiPo batteries. Take it upon yourself to know how to use, store, and dispose of them responsibly. Locate your local drop-off center able to accept used LiPo batteries. Understand that LiPo battery usage can be dangerous and requires your disciplined attention. You should have a fire extinguisher on hand just in case.
Flight and Maintenance Logs
Much of the same information from the preflight checklist can be used to generate your flight log. It is important to document each of your flights. This helps you improve your UAV build and flight performance, by recognizing patterns in data you collect. An added benefit of keeping a flight log is that if you are able to show consistent proactive effort on your part to always fly with safety as a priority, you are much better off should your motives while flying ever be questioned.
Besides a flight log, we also recommend keeping a separate maintenance log for your UAV build(s). This may be as simple as using paper and a binder or as sophisticated as a detailed file kept digitally in whatever mobile electronic device you prefer. Record each repair or improvement you make, and when you did it. Answer the questions, “What caused the problem?” and “Why was the repair or replacement necessary?” Complete any relevant testing following the completion of the work, and record the observations. Of course, using quality components helps cut down on head-scratching as well as repair and documentation time. For example, metal versus plastic mechanisms will naturally be more durable and hold up longer.
Record your decision-making process throughout your drone build, especially if it is your first aerial robotics experience. Describe what factors led you to make each component selection throughout your build. Compare parts or brands you considered and what the result of each decision turned out to be. It may seem like an excessive exercise, but later on you will be glad to have even half of such information on hand.
It is your responsibility to build and fly UAVs safely and responsibly, but you are not alone. If you are uncertain about any part of the design, build, or flight of your craft, it is okay to ask for help. There are many resources and online forums available to small UAV developers, where you can get advice and information on the best practices for UAV safety and technology.
Three such groups worked closely with the United States Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) to agree on policy statements and best practices for safely flying small UAVs. These groups — the Association for Unmanned Vehicles International (AUVSI), the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), and the Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Coalition (SUAVC) — compiled a concise list of the dos and don’ts of piloting small UAVs that they call “The Rules of the Air.”
Their suggested safety guidelines are a fine place to start, but we recommend that you actively and regularly look into the rules for yourself as they continue to evolve. We have summarized their list in the safety section above, and have elaborated on them with some additional ideas for knowledgeable, responsible small UAV flight.
Laws and Regulations
In many countries, hobbyists have enjoyed model flight for nearly 100 years. Throughout the 20th century, the rules of common sense guided the model aircraft community as it typically policed itself with little to no incident.
Recently, the capabilities of these aircraft have increased tremendously, and this has attracted the interest of lawmakers, especially in the United States. We strongly advise anyone just getting into the hobby of model aircraft to check for local and national laws regarding the technology. If you live in the United States, the FAA or AMA websites are the best places to start. You’ll need to register yourself with the FAA and display your associated registration number on everything you’d like to fly that weighs .55 pounds or more.
Important links for the main SUAS resource groups include:
In addition, check out our list of comprehensive safety procedures.
The AMA has a one-page PDF of best practices for flying R/C aircraft as well. This list of sites from a few of the countries that have enacted comprehensive policies for small UAVs can help you get started in finding the laws that apply to your area (the distinction between commercial and noncommercial applications is the main common factor around the world to determine which set of rules you should follow):
Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)
Luftfahrt-Bundesamt (LBA), or Federal Aviation Office