9 Key Skills to Fly Drones Like a Pro

Drones Drones & Vehicles
Pick up your copy of The Complete Guide to Drones

So you’ve obtained a shiny new drone (perhaps one that you’ve built yourself). In order to pilot that thing, you’ll want to read this crash course in basic aircraft terminology, and how it relates to your drone’s controls. With this article, excerpted from Adam Juniper’s new book, The Complete Guide to Drones, you’ll be a master of the skies in no time.


Flying using the sticks (or their touchscreen equivalent) dusts off the lexicon of old-school fixed-wing aircraft, but you also need to adapt your mind to additional controls, such as those that enable vertical take off and hover.


68-Img 01-Pitch

All other things being equal, pitching a multicopter will make it move forward or backward. On the commonly used Mode 2 configuration that means pushing the right stick forward to make the craft move forward. Personally, I would suggest taking off with the drone facing away from you, so pushing the stick forward will pitch the front down and the ’copter will fly away from your position.


68-Img 02-Roll

Again, assuming the standard Mode 2 configuration, the other control on the right stick is roll, which makes the ’copter move left or right, while the front remains facing forward. The further the stick is from the center, the more the ’copter rolls and the faster it will travel. Many pilots find that getting used to the “right stick” controls (pitch and roll), while keeping their ’copter in a small area in front of them helps build confidence early on. This is especially true if the ’copter is in Altitude Hold or GPS Loiter mode. If video is important to you, rolling smoothly left and right is very useful for tracking moving subjects from the side, creating a form of aerial dolly shot.


69-Img 03-Throttle

The throttle determines how much lift the ’copter is creating: below a certain point the ’copter will descend (or stay on the ground if it’s already there); above that point it will ascend. The ideal hover spot should be set to the stick’s middle point, and on some ready-to fly ’copters that default to Altitude Hold mode the sticks are even sprung to this point. In manual mode the throttle is much harder to master, as it doesn’t default to a fixed altitude.


69-Img 04-Pitch and Roll

Used in combination, the pitch and roll controls will always leave the “front” of the ’copter facing in the same direction, but it will slide around in the air in two axes (similar to a computer’s mouse pointer). In the illustration below, the ’copter has been pitched at about 50% forward and 15% left, so it flies forward faster than it does left, but the flexibility is endless.


69-Img 05-Pitch and Yaw

A different way to turn, which might look more elegant if you’ve got a forward facing camera, and will certainly be a better test of your piloting skill, is to combine forward movement from the pitch control with the rotation of yaw. Yaw turns the ’copter around its center, which it can do even when loitering in one spot, so only when combined with pitch does it create a linear flightpath. Once you’ve mastered combining pitch and roll, it’s definitely time to add yaw to the mix.


Hovering and sliding around in straight lines is no fun, so once you’ve got to grips with the basic controls, it’s time to move things up a notch. There are several skills that you should practice as often as possible to help you use the sticks more naturally and become a real master pilot.

The real trick is the ability to use both sticks at once, and to develop an appreciation for the aircraft’s orientation. This is strange at first, and there is a strong temptation to stick with Intelligent Orientation Control (IOC) or “simple” mode. However, doing so would be a lot like only learning to drive an automatic gearbox car in Europe, where stick-shift is far more common. Sure, you could drive if you found an automatic car, but you’d never be able to use most of the cars on the road and you’d certainly never get behind the wheel of a classic sports car.

Another tendency of many early pilots is to think only about one movement at a time, as if there were an invisible cubic grid guiding them. It’s perhaps true that people with a photography background who see their ’copter as a flying camera find themselves flying as if they are moving an imaginary tripod around without much grace. Even for dedicated photographers this isn’t the best way to fly; without developing more subtle control you’ll never be able to shoot the swooping video that is such a big part of clients’ requirements these days.


70-Img 06-Manual Altitude

The difference between Altitude Hold and manual throttle is pretty significant. It’s less important for photographers than racers, but it’s a good idea to practice trying to hold a fixed altitude without automatic assistance and as little input as possible from the right stick.


70-Img 07-Simple Circles

Learning to fly in ever tighter and ever more accurate circles will help every aspect of your flying. Pitch forward with the right stick, then use yaw to turn the ’copter.


71-Img 08-Pass By

Once you’ve got the hang of turning, it’s vital to refine your grasp of flying in whatever direction the front is pointed. A good way to do that is make fly-bys of your position, turning tightly at either end; slow yourself with backward pitch. As you get better able to judge the direction of travel, you can make the straight flight longer and faster.


71-Img 09-Figure of Eight

Flying a figure of eight will require a combination of turning and passing-by skills. This will really help you focus on flying and perceiving your ’copter’s position in 3D space. Try varying the speed and the size of the figure of eight for variety.

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Adam Juniper

Adam Juniper has been flying drones and model helicopters for years, and shares those skills or the videos he captures with tens of thousands of viewers via YouTube and his drone site TameSky.com. He's also worked as a book publisher and professional video producer (with a book on the subject to his name), and has written for numerous digital creativity magazines.

View more articles by Adam Juniper


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