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Drone for Beginners

By: Jenny Brown

I bought my first drone several years ago with the goal of trying out aerial photography and videography. I’m lucky to live in an area with striking natural landscapes and many areas that permit drone flights, so I was curious to see how everything would look from above. Over time, I’ve also come to love the challenge of learning new skills and increasing my control as I maneuver my drone with pinpoint precision.

If you’re also hoping to dive into this fun hobby, this guide is for you. It covers the fundamentals, from choosing which drone to buy, to figuring out relevant laws and regulations, to keeping your drone in good condition, to traveling with your drone.

Why Buy a Drone?

If you’re a private citizen interested in purchasing a drone, chances are you want to take awesome pictures or videos from the air. This is probably the most common reason why people buy drones for personal use.

You might be headed on vacation to somewhere with stunning landscapes best viewed from above, or you might be planning a wedding and hoping for some offbeat aerial shots.

Other people use drones for purposes such as surveying land, observing construction sites, tracking wildlife, and so on.

How to Choose Which Drone to Buy

I started out with a relatively inexpensive drone. Though I was tempted by fancy high-end models, I’m glad I made my worst mistakes on a cheapie! After a couple months, I was ready to upgrade.

Advice for Buying Your First Drone

  • I recommend starting out with a quadcopter, a design that typically has an H- or X-shaped frame that provides a good level of stability.
  • Quadcopters generally come with four propellers, sufficient to support a drone of one or two pounds, including in somewhat windy conditions (wind speed up to around 15mph).
  • As a beginner, you should probably also choose a ready-to-fly (RTF) model, meaning one that is pre-assembled and ready to go without much tinkering.

How Expensive and High-End Should You Go?

How much you spend on your drone is a personal choice; as I’ve mentioned, I learned on a cheaper model before upgrading. Here are the limits of most less expensive drones:

  • They’re lightweight, which makes them less suitable for windy days.
  • The battery life is shorter (I think mine lasted 15 minutes at most).
  • There’s less stabilization, so images don’t quite have that professional-quality crispness.

On the bright side, there are some advantages:

  • Less expensive drones can be surprisingly durable! Lightweight models are actually quite good at surviving crashes.
  • They give you the chance to gain confidence and learn basic skills in a low-stakes situation.
  • They’re cheaper!

If you do select a higher-end drone, my fundamental recommendations still apply: Go for a ready-to-fly quadcopter.

Here are my top recommendations:

Additional Accessories

Now apart from the drone itself, what accessories and extras should you plan to buy? Here are some useful items:

  • Extra batteries. Battery lifespan often isn’t great, so bring a few extra battery packs if you plan to be flying for a while.
  • Car charger. If you plan to shoot for hours at a time, get a car charger to make it easier to top up your batteries.
  • Carrying bag or case. It’s important to protect your drone! I’ll have more to say on taking care of your drone below.
  • Extra propellers. If something on your drone breaks, it’s likely to be a propeller. The drone itself might be durable, but the propellers are thin, fast-moving parts that are more prone to breakage. Your drone likely comes with a few spare propellers, but I always get even more just in case.
  • Propeller guard. This protective accessory reduces the frequency with which you have to replace propellers, guarding them against incidental bumps. A prop guard will add a little weight to your drone (which in turn slightly reduces battery life), so take it off if you’re flying in wide open, easy conditions and are confident in your piloting skills.
  • High-capacity memory card. A higher-than-usual capacity is important for capturing tons of high-quality photo and video footage.
  • Lens filters. If you plan to shoot video, for instance, you should look into neutral density filters. The right filter is an important part of getting your photos and video to turn out well.
  • Landing gear. Landing gear lets your drone sit a little higher off the ground when it lands. So, if it lands in mud or snow, the body of the drone and the camera will be more likely to stay clean.
  • Landing pad. On that note, a landing pad can also make your take-offs and landings go more smoothly. It’s basically just a portable little pad that provides a clean environment for your drone.
  • GPS tracker. It took me a while to get one of these, since my drones already report back location information. But as I attempt more ambitious and challenging flights, I feel more at ease with a little GPS tracker attached to my drone. So, even if my drone goes out of range or malfunctions in some way, I’ll be able to track it down.
  • Drone insurance. Yes, this is a thing! If something happens to your drone, it’s nice to have a policy in place for quick and easy repair or replacement. We recommend checking out Embroker!

Of all the above items, I find that the extra batteries, carrying case, and spare propellers are true essentials. Lens filters and a high-capacity memory card are extremely useful if you’re an avid photographer or videographer.

The other items are nice to have, though you can get by without them. I’ve slowly accumulated each item on this list over the years, often receiving a new drone accessory or two on my birthday. So even if this list seems super long and intimidating, don’t worry. You don’t need everything all at once.

Important Rules and Regulations

As with nearly any hobby, there are some important guidelines to acquaint yourself with so that you don’t run afoul of local laws and can enjoy your drone respectfully and considerately.

Laws on Drone Use

The first thing to know: Flying a drone is not permitted everywhere. This is basic common sense. Of course you can’t use your drone to infiltrate top-security locations or to spy on the neighbors.

Many popular tourist sites and national parks also place restrictions on drones: It is illegal to fly a done within any U.S. National Park for instance. When in doubt, look up the regulations for the specific location you’re planning to be.

As a starting point, you can check out this list of drone laws compiled by UAV Coach.

Relevant laws can change quickly though, so I suggest double-checking before you fly in a particular location.

Within the United States, the relevant laws are federal FAA regulations (in addition to any location-specific laws). Rules are different depending on whether you are a recreational drone pilot or a commercial drone pilot.

As a recreational flyer, you’ll need to abide by certain regulations, such as registering your drone with the FAA and displaying your registration number on a visible outer surface of the drone.

In addition, you’ll need to fly at or below 400 feet, obtain authorization when flying in controlled airspace, keep your drone within your line of sight, and avoid reckless behaviors such as flying your drone while under the influence or flying at night.

If you happen to be a commercial drone pilot, review the resources here for certifying your drone and learning the relevant rules.

Flying Safely and Responsibly

Now in some cases, flying a drone may be legal but still have the potential to annoy nearby people or disturb wildlife. Many dramatic landscapes in Iceland, for instance, provide beautiful and wonderful places to snap photos with your drone, but it’s important to be polite and fly responsibly. How?

  • Don’t drone directly over other people. The noise is disruptive, and you don’t want to risk injuring anyone in an accidental drone crash! In many places, flying your drone over people is illegal for this reason.
  • Respect tranquil areas when other visitors are around. Many people enjoy the peace and quiet of nature. If you’re visiting a popular natural spot, and the other visitors seem to be soaking in the silence, it’s good manners to refrain from flying your drone, or to get your shots quickly.
  • Avoid crowded places. Just as a general rule of thumb, it’s best to seek out more solitary spots for your drone flights. This will help you avoid the problem of flying over other people.
  • Fly high (but not too high). Flying higher up in the air reduces the noise and also helps keep your drone out of other people’s shots. That said, many places have restrictions on drone altitude, often capping it at 400 feet so that your drone won’t interfere with other aircraft.
  • Be respectful of wildlife. Some animals may be disturbed by the noise or close intrusion of a drone into their space. This is a problem for nesting birds, for example. Before flying in a wildlife habitat, ensure first that drones are allowed (you may need to apply for a permit). Even if they are, I recommend keeping a respectful distance from any wildlife.
  • Make sure you have full control of your drone before flying in tricky conditions. Many cities do permit drone flights, but urban environments pose particular challenges, such as possible signal loss and wind tunnels. Busy city centers are full of obstacles that can take out your drone—some people have unfortunately crashed their drones into buildings. So, practice a lot in easier conditions before attempting anything difficult!

Where to Fly

So we’ve been through some places that are less than ideal or even off-limits for drone flying. Now let’s talk about places that are ideal! Here are some tips to find the perfect spot:

  • Use Google Earth to scout out potential locations in advance.
  • Check out UAV Coach’s list of places for flying. This list is an amazing resource for flying within the United States.
    • Just as an example, this page offers 5 fantastic places to fly in and around Portland, Oregon, such as Pittock Mansion and Little Crater Lake.
    • Look for large open areas without heavy crowds but with attractive scenery, such as a park or reservoir.

How to Begin Flying

In my experience, it’s easiest to learn by observing and doing! I got started by watching a few video tutorials featuring my specific model and then getting out there and trying it for myself, luckily with a little help from a more experienced friend at first.

Tips for Flying Your Drone

Do some advance planning and come up with a flight plan. What images or perspectives do you hope to capture with your drone? What route will help you accomplish your goals?

Coming up with a plan ahead of time lets you manage your time efficiently and increases your odds of success. You can use Google Earth or PhotoPills to help you create your plan.

Pay attention not only to the particular landscapes or scenes you want to capture, but also to any obstacles, such as power lines, tree branches, or buildings that you’ll need to avoid in your flight.

There are many video tutorials nowadays, and you can probably even find a tutorial specifically created for your exact drone model! For instance, here is a beginner tutorial on flying a quadcopter drone. And here’s another quite extensive tutorial.

Common Pitfalls and Challenges

  • Magnetic Interference: Radio signals can mess with your drone and send it to an untimely crash landing. Many drone models are equipped to let you know in advance if there’s magnetic interference in the area, in which case you should not take off. You’ll lessen your chances of encountering magnetic interference if you avoid big antennae and industrial spaces and stick to big open spaces.
  • Birds: Do your best to steer clear of birds! An in-air collision is really not ideal for your drone or for the bird in question. Sometimes larger birds will even attack drones.
  • Inclement or windy weather: Obviously hailstones, heavy rain, and strong winds are not great for drone flying and should be avoided. Some models are capable of withstanding the elements to some extent—but I highly recommend learning the ropes in easier conditions.
  • Very cold weather: Many recreational drones aren’t designed for freezing temperatures and may malfunction in these conditions. If you’re interested in taking on the cold, see this guide to flying in winter weather.

How to Take Care of Your Drone

Like any piece of equipment, your drone will last longer and perform better if you take good care of it. Here’s how I’ve kept my drones in top condition over the long-term.

First of all, I transport my drone in a rugged carrying case. Carrying it around loose or just shoving it in your car, let alone taking it on a flight in an unsuitable case is a fast way to smash your drone up. A decent carrying case is one of the first accessories you should buy.

Before flying, I often check to see if there are any important software updates, since sometimes it’s actually impossible to take off if your drone is not up-to-date.

I always conduct a pre-flight check to ensure that my flights go as smoothly as possible. One of the fastest ways to destroy your drone is to have an in-flight issue that leads to a crash. You can find an example of a pre-flight checklist here. It includes items such as: Is the compass calibrated? Are the batteries properly fitted? Have you checked wind speed? Have you double-checked the obstacles you’re expecting (e.g. trees, powerlines, etc.).

Some drone pilots recommend that you begin each flight by hovering your drone only a few meters off the ground for up to a minute. This way, you’ll detect potential problems early, before they become catastrophic.

On a related note, I only fly in reasonably good weather conditions. Of course, as you gain skills, you can attempt greater challenges. But heavy rain, snow, and hail should be avoided. Likewise, avoid flying in heavy fog that obscures your visibility. Strong winds are another reason to keep your drone at home.

Different drones have different capabilities with regard to things like temperature or wind speed, so check your user manual.

Caring for your drone includes caring for its batteries too. These will often be LiPO (lithium polymer) batteries. Start your flights with batteries fully-charged. When you’re done flying, remove the batteries. Bear in mind that LiPO batteries drain more quickly in cold weather. For more tips on using LiPO batteries safely and responsibly, see the article here

As for the drone’s motors and propellers, those need to be kept clean and in good shape. After flying, remove and clean the propellers. If a propeller is chipped, bent, or cracked, it’s best to replace it; these problems can affect how your drone flies, and luckily replacement propellers are quite inexpensive.

You can use compressed air to clear out anything trapped in the motors. Here’s a video tutorial on cleaning out your drone if you get your motors gummed up. In addition to compressed air, useful cleaning supplies include a microfiber cloth and isopropyl alcohol.

Soon, these procedures will become second-nature to you. It’s important to develop these good habits from the start so that your drone stays clean and functional for many flights to come.

How to Travel with Your Drone

Tons of people buy drones so that they can snap epic vacation shots. But there are some important considerations for anyone hoping to travel with their drones to new and unfamiliar places. Here is my advice for bringing your drone along on holiday:

  • Check drone laws and regulations local to your vacation spot.
  • Consider purchasing a smaller, more portable drone specifically for travel.
  • Invest in a high-quality protective case for your drone.
  • Spare lithium batteries are generally not permitted in checked luggage, so make sure to pack them in your carry-on.
  • Be respectful of locals and other travelers. All of the guidelines above concerning safe and responsible flight still apply.

Interesting Drone Applications

Apart from recreational use, drones have a seemingly endless array of applications. These include…

Aerial Surveillance

Farmers can use drones to keep track of livestock and monitor crops over vast acres of land. Drones can also be sent out to inspect powerlines, pipelines, and various other structures.

Commercial Filmmaking

This comes as no surprise to any aerial videography enthusiast. High-end drones capture truly stunning video footage. Drones have been used in films such as Skyfall and Jurassic World.

Construction

Surveying construction sites and checking on progress has never been easier thanks to UAV technology.

Disaster Relief and Search-and-Rescue

Time is of the essence when you’re providing urgent disaster relief or searching for a missing person. Again, drones make these processes much quicker and more efficient.

Military

Military applications are probably the best-known use of drones.

Wildlife Monitoring

It’s important for conservationists to know how populations of vulnerable or endangered species are doing. Drones can help them track animals’ movements, keep tabs on population growth or decline, and prevent poaching, allowing conservationists to intervene before it’s too late.

Conclusion

When I was a kid, I never imagined that I would someday own and operate my very own flying device, capable of zooming around snapping fantastic photos and showing me the world from entirely new angles. It seems like something out of science fiction.

What’s your opinion on UAVs? Is this a hobby you’d consider trying? And if you’re more experienced, what’s something you wish you knew when you were just starting out?

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