When you first start flying drones, it can feel like there are a lot of details to keep track of. But after you log a few flights and build your confidence with the basics, you’re probably eager to explore some new locations and see what your drone can really do.
Drones are easier to fly than ever before, but it’s important to not allow ease-of-use to create a false sense of security. Millions of new drone pilots are expected to take to the air for the first time in the coming years, and many of them will undoubtedly experience crashes and flyaways that could have been easily avoided. Becoming a skilled drone pilot takes time, practice, and incorporating habits for safe and successful flights.
So, before you take off into uncharted territories, here are a few habits that can help you avoid costly incidents, and establish a track record of safe flights.
Scout your flight locations.
For many pilots, scouting a new location starts with online research using Google Earth or other digital tools. Online resources can be a good way to gain a basic understanding of the terrain, but even if you’ve done your digital due diligence it’s best to explore a new location in person before you fly.
Here are a few things to look for when scouting a new location:
Identify the safest place for take-off and landing: Find an open area with a level surface that’s clear of debris. There should be about 15 feet between you and the drone during take-off and landing, and make sure there’s plenty of room to maneuver freely once the drone is up in the air.
Map your flight plan: Even if you’re just planning a basic flight in a familiar field, it’s important to map out your flight plan. Ensure the path you intend to fly is safe and clear of trees, buildings, power lines, cell phone towers, guy wires, and any other potential obstacles that might impact your flight.
Look for sources of interference: Fire hydrants, underground pipes, power lines, cell and radio towers, rebar in concrete, and other nearby metal objects like your keys, smartwatch, or cell phone, can all cause magnetic interference that impacts the drone’s compass. Interference can cause a failed compass calibration before takeoff and other in-flight problems such as drifting or loss of camera controls.
Thoroughly researching a new flight location will help you familiarize yourself with potential in-flight threats and be better prepared to manage unexpected challenges.
Check the weather report.
Before you head out to your flight location, check the weather report for that area. You’ll want to keep an eye on these five factors:
- Temperature: Most quadcopters are designed to fly in temperatures that range from roughly 32° F to 104° F, which enables you to fly safely in a variety of climates. But if you plan to fly in an area known for relatively extreme conditions, you’ll want to monitor your thermometer (or favorite weather app) to make sure your drone can handle the harsh temperatures.
- Wind: Wind speed is another factor you’ll want to monitor closely. For beginner pilots flying in GPS mode, winds of 5-10 mph will probably be manageable. But if you start to see speeds top 15-20 mph, you can expect some drifting – which is especially problematic if you’re flying in an area with trees, buildings, or other obstacles.
- Precipitation: Flying in the rain, snow, hail, or other forms of precipitation should be avoided. Most drones are not waterproof, and flying in the rain can short out a motor, damage the camera or gimbal, or cause other malfunctions to the drone or your controller.
- Visibility: Drone pilots are required by law to keep the drone within visual line of sight – without the use of binoculars or other vision-enhancing devices. For most pilots, visual line of sight ranges from roughly a quarter mile to a mile, but it depends on the pilot’s eyesight, weather conditions, pollution, the color of the drone, and other factors. Flying in low-visibility conditions is risky and should also be avoided.
- Kp-index: The Kp-index is used to measure the strength of disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field. The Kp-index is based on a 0-9 scale, and to give some context, a 5 indicates a minor geomagnetic storm. For drone flying purposes you want the number to be as low as possible as increased geomagnetic activity may cause issues with your satellite connection. If the Kp-index is 5 or higher you can expect some interference with your GPS, and you might see some drifting or experience other control issues.
Mobile apps like Hover (see screenshot above), make it easy to check these key measurements and determine if it’s safe to fly. If any of these conditions are not favorable, you should move your flight to a later date or different location. Check your user manual for more information on how weather-related factors might impact the performance of your drone.
Create a preflight checklist (and use it).
Creating a preflight checklist enables you to identify the steps essential to a successful flight, and confirm that you complete those steps every time you fly. As you build up your piloting experience, a checklist might start to feel unnecessary. But the reality is that experts throughout the aviation industry – from captains of large passenger planes to experienced quadcopter pilots – utilize checklists before each and every flight.
The checklist you create will vary based on the drone you fly, but here are a few general factors to consider:
- Setup: Scout the area; check the weather; review Sectional charts and Notice to Airmen (NOTAMs) for Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs); calibrate the compass; remove the gimbal lock (if you’re flying a camera drone).
- Remote Controller: Check the power levels; examine the connections between the controller and tablet / mobile device; position the RC antennas properly; select the desired flight mode (e.g. GPS, ATTI).
- Aircraft: Inspect the frame, motors, and propellers for damage; insert charged battery; insert a Micro SD card into camera; mount propellers; attach desired filters (e.g. neutral density, polarizer); ensure all components of the airframe are secured.
Your checklist might also include confirming that you have local emergency and air traffic control contact information, a copy of your insurance details, and a copy of your remote pilot certificate (if applicable).
Fly within your limits.
If you’re a beginner or novice pilot, it’s best to hone your flight skills in a large open field or park, free of trees and away from crowds. Spend at least a month practicing in a familiar, open area before you start experimenting with more challenging locations. Getting overly confident and flying in a difficult area (like right outside your front door) can lead to crashing or losing your drone.
Remember to check your proximity to airports and other restricted areas. Check city ordinances and signs at the location, as your favorite park might actually prohibit drone flights (AirMap and Hover are two great tools that can help you fly safely in authorized areas). Lastly, don’t forget the basics: keep your drone under 400 ft., within line of sight, and away from crowds and restricted areas.
The Bottom Line
There are some inherent risks associated with flying drones, and unexpected things will happen. But establishing habits that ensure safe flight, such as scouting new locations, checking the weather, creating and using a preflight checklist, and always flying within your limits, enables you to reduce avoidable incidents, better prepare for the unexpected, and consistently complete successful flights.