7 Tips for Starting with Drones

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Drones. Literally, they're everywhere. Whether it’s zipping through the skies, performing aerial acrobatics indoors, or lovingly stalking you from a user-defined distance, there’s no escaping them. And thanks to a rapidly evolving technology base and consumer interest that's steadily on the rise, it looks as if drones are poised to dominate both the air and the airwaves for years to come. If you're one of the many people interested in joining the drone revolution, now's a great time to do so. With so many options available to consumers, getting your drone's pilot license has never been easier. 

But where to start? 

Drones, or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), come in a variety of shapes and sizes, many with different performance features and at varying costs. For the uninitiated, all of these options can seem a little intimidating. To help get you into the air, we've compiled a list of useful tips that will make your transition from novice pilot to experienced sky captain a less turbulent one. 

Know thyself  

With so many purchase options, it’s important to know (or at least have an idea) of what you want to use your drone for. Are you interested in aerial photography or do you just want to stunt through the park? Speaking of the park, are you planning on flying your new drone indoors or outside? What's more important to you, an aircraft with a built-in camera gimbal or the ability to perform pre-programmed barrel rolls? These are the types of questions you should ask yourself before making your first drone purchase. You don’t necessarily need to have your call-sign already picked out, but having a general sense of what you’d like to do with your new UAV will help you narrow the field into choices that are right for you.

3DR Solo Quadcopter with 3-Axis Gimbal for GoPro HERO3+ / HERO4

RTF versus DIY

Now that you've got a basic idea of what kind of drone you'd like, it's time to learn about three very important letters in the dronist's alphabet: RTF. Simply put, RTF, or Ready-to-Fly, means your drone is ready for takeoff right out of the box. Everything you need to get airborne is included, from props to transmitter. This is an important distinction to look for when purchasing your drone, because not all models are RTF. Some drones require assembly or additional equipment, such as a radio controller, flight battery, or additional propellers. Before you click the purchase button, be sure to check whether your UAV is RTF, or you might end up being SOL (stuck on land).

Xcraft X PlusOne DIY Quadcopter Kit

Practice makes perfect

It's tough to match the exhilaration you feel once you've mastered flying your drone. The tricks, the speed, the elegant maneuvering—it’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience. However, getting to that level of competency isn't always an overnight process. Getting the hang of your drone's flight controls can take some work, which is why for pilots who are just starting out, practicing in a safe, low-altitude environment is a smart place to begin. A good motto when beginning with drone flight is: “Keep it low, and keep it slow.” Better yet, try picking up a more cost-friendly UAV to practice indoors. Once you’ve got the feel for the controls, you’ll be able to translate that skill set to a more advanced model for a truly unparalleled (and crash-free) experience.

Stock up on spare parts and accessories

Keeping spare drone parts close by is always a smart bet. As any pilot will tell you, with drones, the unexpected can happen—that’s part of the excitement. Sometimes that excitement results in a bent prop or fried motor. Usually that’s not the case, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry (especially if “being sorry” involves driving 45 minutes to an abandoned parking lot to test out your brand-new drone only to bust a propeller during a failed run and not having any spares with you—I’m not bitter, I swear). So, before you head out, be sure to stock up on extra rotary blades and definitely keep a backup flight battery handy. That way you're not grounded while you're waiting for your primary battery to recharge. If you’re using a drone that can capture video to a memory card, make sure you bring a couple along—Delkin’s microSD cards are always a good bet. And speaking of carrying things around, if you plan on traveling with your drone, be sure to pick up a protective case or backpack. I store my Phantom (and all its accessories) in a Lowepro DroneGuard Backpack, which makes transport a breeze.

Lowepro DroneGuard BP 450 AW Backpack for Quadcopter

Get your Matlock on

Even as of this writing, the rules concerning drones and UAV flight are under review. Before you make your drone purchase or take to the friendly skies, make sure you’re up to date on all the latest rules and regulations on what you can and cannot do with your new UAV. A good place to start is the FAA’s resource page on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which details current US drone laws and prohibitions.

Plan ahead

One of the reasons drones are so much fun is because there’s so much you can do with them. Whether you’re a hobbyist, a professional, or somewhere in between, the possibilities are near endless. But because there’s so much you can do with a drone, there’s also plenty that can go wrong. That’s why it’s always smart to plan ahead. Whether it’s staging the perfect photo-op, checking the daily forecast for prohibitive weather, or having the foresight to pack any extra flight battery or two, planning for contingencies will help ensure your flight plan goes accordingly.

Safety first (and last)

E. Hamilton Lee said it best: "There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots." Sure, he might not have been talking UAV pilots, but the edict still applies. The bottom line with drone use is this: Be safe. Drones are incredibly fun and useful devices, but they also hold the potential for serious danger and should be treated accordingly. Most rules of the sky are pretty straightforward and fall under the banner of common sense: don’t buzz people or animals, stay off airfields, avoid power lines, etc. Not all safety measures are quite that obvious, so be sure to read all the safety documentation that comes with your drone to avoid potential dangerous situations, and keep the good times (barrel) rolling.

To read more about the full line of drones available at B&H, click here.

15 Comments

Great article man, keep doing the good work 

Thanks for the feedback

Great tips! Practice had been very helpful in flying my drone and one of the accessories I got is a GPS tracking device just in of flyaways I have means to locate my drone.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/drone-police-edmonton-helicopter-... That would scare the crap out of anyone flying in that helicopter.

Canadian rules are very stringent, and really, for all the hype about how useful, creative and wonderful UAVs are, it is very hard to fly them anywhere near as often as one might want.

Here are some of the 86 conditions within a first-time Transport Canada-issued SFOC (Special Flight Operations Certificate). Bold text is my emphasis.

"This Certificate is issued subject to the following conditions;
1. The UAV shall only be operated within visual line-of-sight.
2. The UAV pilot shall give way to manned aircraft at all times.
3. The UAV pilot shall only operate the UAV in visual meteorological conditions which shall be a minimum of 3 statute miles visibility and a minimum ceiling of 1000 feet above ground.
4. The UAV shall only be operated during daylight hours.
5. A current copy of the Canada Flight Supplement and current, relevant aeronautical charts shall be available and utilized for all UAV operations.
6. Operations within Class F Restricted airspace dedicated for UAV testing and development are prohibited under this Certificate.
7. Operations within Class A and Class B airspace are prohibited.
8. The UAV pilot shall operate the UAV at 100 feet above ground or lower when within 5 nautical miles of any aerodrome, runway, helipad or waterdrome, and at 300 feet above ground level (AGL) or lower at all other times as specified in the application and supporting documentation. (Comment - Applies to non-certificate holders always.)
9. The UAV pilot shall coordinate with the air traffic services unit responsible for supplying air traffic services for the area of operation well in advance of proposed operations as per the methods given in the application. The validity of this Certificate is contingent upon such coordination.
10. The UAV pilot shall conduct a site survey in accordance with the procedures outlined in the SFOC application prior to commencing operations at each location.
11 . The UAV shall not be operated in any special aviation event requiring an SFOC under Part VI, Subpart 3, Division 1 of the Canadian Aviation Regulations.
12. The Certificate holder shall ensure that policies and procedures as described in the application and supplementary information are in place and followed to ensure that the UAV system is stored and transported in accordance with the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, 1992. General Operating Conditions
13. A copy of this Certificate shall be on site any time the UAV is in operation.
14. The UAV Certificate Holder shall notify this office within 10 working days after:
        1. changing its legal name, trade name, main base, any contact information, and
        2. ceasing to operate models of UAV systems authorized under this Certificate.
15. The UAV Certificate holder shall not permit any UAV pilot to operate the controls of the UAV if either the UAV pilot or the UAV Certificate Holder has any reason to believe that the UAV pilot is suffering or is likely to suffer from fatigue so that they are unfit to perform their duties.
16. No UAV pilot shall operate the UAV system within eight hours after consuming an alcoholic beverage or while under the influence of alcohol or while using any d***g that impairs the person's faculties to the extent that the safety of the operation is endangered in any way.

.. yadda yadda ..

20. The UAV pilot shall not permit the use of a portable electronic device at the control station of a UAV system where the device may impair the functioning of the systems or equipment.
21. The UAV pilot shall not permit the use of LIDAR or any other laser or bright light emitting device in conjunction with the operation of the UAV.
22. The UAV pilot shall not permit the dropping of an object from the UAV in flight.
23. No UAV pilot shall operate the UAV within a building with spectators present unless there is floor to ceiling netting capable of containing the UAV or any UAV parts in the event of a malfunction.
24. The UAV pilot shall not operate the UAV system, where visual observers are used as part of the sense and avoid function unless reliable communication is established and maintained between the visual observer and the UAV pilot and standard operating procedures are followed. (Comment - if there is any distance between the pilot and the observers, one will need voice-activated two-way radios that will not interfere with the flight control link. Or they could try yelling back and forth!)

... Comment - Those last ones are some of the reasonable ones, the following are a bunch of rules about record-keeping specific to SFOC. Doing commercial UAV work (ie for money or financial gain) you will need the following....

32. The UAV Certificate Holder shall keep a technical record for the UAV system.
33. The UAV Certificate Holder shall establish and maintain records of their flight operations toinclude the following information:
1. Location, date, times, crew, and aircraft type for each flight;
2. Flight hours accumulated per aircraft;
3. UAV pilot(s) flight hours per day, month and year; and
4. Site survey.
34. The UAV Certificate Holder shall retain the records identified in the condition above for a period of time equal to the validity period of this Certificate plus one (1) year beyond the expiry date.
35. The UAV Certificate Holder shall have subscribed for adequate liability insurance covering risks of public liability at the appropriate level, as described in section 606.02 of the Canadian Aviation Regulations. (Comment - brokers in Canada appear not ready to sell less than $500,000 policies, despite the CAR mandating $100,000 minimum). This applies for all UAV operations, private and commercial!)
36. The UAV pilot shall adhere to the security plan in accordance with the information provided in the SFOC application.
37. The UAV pilot shall adhere to the emergency contingency plan in accordance with the information provided in the SFOC application.

...

45. The UAV Certificate Holder is responsible for obtaining permission from the owner(s) of the property on which the UAV intends to take-off from, land on or overfly.
46. A NOTAM shall be filed at least 24 hours in advance for any operation under this SFOC that is within Class C, D, E or F airspace and/or within five (5) nautical miles of any aerodrome in either controlled or uncontrolled airspace, unless directed otherwise by the Air Traffic Service Unit. (comment - non-certicate holders require and likely will not get permission to fly within 5nm of aerodromes.)

...

50. In the event of a UAV fly-away, loss of visual contact or inadvertent entry into controlled airspace the UAV pilot shall immediately notify the appropriate Air Traffic Services unit affected as per the following procedures:
a. UAV Lateral Fly Away:
In a situation where a UAV is operating within 10 nautical miles of Class C, D orE airspace and a loss of control has occurred, or is apparent, and the UAV appears to be travelling horizontally but not climbing, The primary Emergency contact shall be the nearest Aerodrome, Flight Service Station, or Tower. The Secondary in this case should be the Flight Information Region (FIR) Area Control Center (ACC) Shift Manager (Edmonton 780-890-8397 Winnipeg 204- 983-8338 or Montreal 514-633-3365(if in the vicinity of lqaluit)) and the appropriate FIC (Winnipeg 1-866-541-4103, Edmonton 1-866-541-4102 or Montreal 1-866-541-4109 (if in the vicinity of lqaluit))
b. UAV Vertical Fly Away: In a situation where a UAV is operating within 10 nautical miles of Class C, D or E airspace and a loss of control has occurred, or is apparent, and the UAV appears to be climbing with minimal or no horizontal travel, the primary contact shall be the Flight Information Region (FIR) Area Control Center (ACC) Shift Manager.(Edmonton 780-890-8397 Winnipeg 204-983-8338 or Montreal 514-633-3365(if in the vicinity of lqaluit)). The secondary in this case shall be the appropriate FIC (Winnipeg 1-866-541-41 03, Edmonton 1-866-541-4102 or Montreal 1-866-541- 4109 (if in the vicinity of lqaluit)).
c. ALL other UAV Fly Aways (Vertical and/or Horizontal): In all situations where the UAV is operating outside of the conditions listed above and a loss of control has occurred or is apparent, the primary contact shall be the Flight Information Region(FIR) Area Control Center (ACC) Shift Manager.(Edmonton 780-890-8397 Winnipeg 204-983-8338 or Montreal 514-633-3365(if in the vicinity of lqaluit)). The secondary in this case shall be the appropriate FIC (Winnipeg 1-866-541-4103, Edmonton 1-866-541-4102 or Montreal 1-866-541-4109 (if in the vicinity of lqaluit)). (Comment - Don't EVER have a fly-away!)

51. The UAV pilot shall follow the lost link procedures in accordance with the information provided inthe SFOC application.
52. No UAV pilot shall conduct a take-off/launch of the UAV unless the risk involved with lost link circumstances has been assessed and a determination has been made as to when auto-recovery manoeuvres or flight termination shall be initiated.
53. No UAV pilot shall activate a flight termination system, if the UAV is so equipped, in such a manner as to endanger other airspace users or persons or property on the ground. (comment - Phantom's "autoland wherever" scheme isn't going to cut it).
...
56. The UAV pilot shall confirm that no unacceptable radio frequency interference is present prior to flight, nor is likely to be present during flight. (comment - Good luck with ensuring that without hugely expensive scanners and analyzers. wtf? How does one  confirm that otherwise?)

... (Comment - The previous few are reasonable but complicated, these next ones are reasonable as well, and often completely ignored by the users I see on youtube. Granted many of those users aren't living in Canuckistan, so your mileage may vary.)

66. No UAV pilot shall operate the UAV at a lateral distance of less than 100 feet from persons, buildings, occupied vehicles or vessels unless;
  1. the owner has granted consent; and
   2. only persons involved in the operation and familiar with the hazards are present.

67. No UAV pilot shall operate the UAV at a lateral distance of less than 100 feet from the general public, spectators, bystanders or any person not associated with the operation.
68. No UAV pilot shall operate the UAV over a built-up area.
69. No UAV pilot shall operate the UAV within built-up or populated areas other than within the specific operation area as described in the security plan as described in the application.
70 . No UAV pilot shall operate the UAV at a lateral distance of less than 500 feet from open air assemblies of people
.
71. The UAV pilot or visual observer(s) must maintain continuous unaided visual contact with the UAV sufficient to be able to maintain operational control of the aircraft, know its location and be able to scan the airspace in which it is operating to decisively see and avoid other air traffic or objects. (Comment - No FPV without at least one observer. Visual-line-of-sight rules say one observer can only maintain *unaided* VLOS for about 300' to 400' for a larger Inspire-sized unit. So if you plan on flying FPV for a mile and each observer can "see" the unit for 600' of travel, you will need 9 (8.8) observers along your intended flight-path!)
..

The skipped-over regulations are common-sense, but I see Canadian youtube videos breaking one or more very often.

Non-certificate holders (flying under so-called "exemption") face even more onerous rules.

And if you are a foreign UAV operator coming to Canada, you may as well leave your UAV at home because it will likely not be allowed to be flown unless you have UAV-specific liability insurance (expensive) and a foreign-operator's super-special flight ops certificate. Be prepared to bend over for both of those!

This safety issue is all very interesting regarding airports. However, DJI has just implemented a safety measure where your drone will drop out of the sky if its near an airport. They have a tapered profile of height and distance to trigger a "drop out of the sky." Owners of Phantoms have complained that the warning indication on the hand held remote control is only 3-4 seconds befor their bird drops out of the sky.

Thing is, it's just not reasonable to need to fly without control tower permission near an airport or the 5 mile NFZ area. DJI has profiled their drop out of the sky area not just radially from a central point, but one that reflects runways. They intend to profile something like 10,000 airports around the world.

The real problem is low flying helicopters that can be anywhere. It's more likely that a small drone will be hit by a helicopter. Who knows who is at fault under these circumstances.

Start here:

https://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/

.  Any drone over 250 grams [about 0.55 lbs] reuires FAA Registration.  The user is registered, not the drone.  Costs $5 for three years.  Register online with a credit card.  Your FAA number must be on the aircraft whenever you fly.  http://www.uavstickers.com/ offer vinyl stickers with your FAA number at a reasonable price.  Fly before you get them by using sticky labels.

  Always observe nearby No-Fly Zones, and make arrangements with airport towers before flying.  You may be able to make a standing arrangement for flying in a permanent area.  See:https://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Advisory_Circular/AC_91-57A.pdf

  Fly within FAA restrictions.  400 feet above ground level, and always keep the aircraft in sight.  Don't fly over crowds.  Always remember that your aircraft is potentially dangerous, from injuries fom those flying knife-blades called props, to the weight of it falling from the sky.

  So basically, fly safe, don't be an idiot, and always remember, it's NOT a toy.

The FAA is partnering with AUVSI and AMA on the website: http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/  I'm young enough to remember when the FCC applications for obtaining a station license and an operator license were included in the box with a new Citizens Band radio.  I filled those out, mailed them inside an envelope with a postage stamp on the outside, received the paperwork and kept it in the vehicle.  Soon after, the FCC recognized that administrative costs were growing as the CB radio population expanded rapidly, and the registration requirement for those 27mHz radios was dropped.  I would expect the FAA will eventually drop the operator registration requirement, but it could be a while.  It appears that once you register your first outdoor drone weighing more than 1/2 pound, the ID number that you will be issued is to be placed on each drone (no limit of numbers, every drone you own carries the same number).  For five bucks, the process needs to be pretty simple to avoid exceeding administrative costs.  

The Aviation Club held its first indoor flight event today, with an indoor RC flying course and PC-flight simulators.  We were amazed by the response to "Get out of the house and BYOD" as we had thirty people at the local Elks Lodge, practicing with sizes from micro and nano quad-copters to DJI Phantoms, plus an airplane and a large coaxial helicopter through the 28"diameter gates.  Fun!  Next event is April 30.  A volunteer appeared this week to start up the club's website, as we get this organization started.  

    We're ready, willing and able to help anyone build their own indoor course equipment and get these activities for kids of all ages and abilities atarted.  Local flying schools are encouraging us, too.   If you have a half-court in the gym, a meeting room or similar size space, it'll work!  

Totally agree with the above comment. Its all about being safe and responsible. High end drones have dropped to 400-600USD margin and the accessibility brings in a lot of newbies with no regard for safety or common sense. It's a party trick to them, the only issue is, it ruins it for everyone else, as usual. 

While I do not support the current FAA rules regarding drones, You really need to be aware of them.

The FAA is coming down hard on drone operators.  Especially those who use a drone for commercial photography. One company has been fined in excess of $1,250,000.  The FAA requires all drones to be registered, a ridiculous idea, but they are going to use whatever force, manipulation they can to keep control of all airspace no matter what you are flying. The government also thinks that someone is going to try to take out a full size aircraft with a drone attack.  They have generated fear among many in the flying community.  As a pilot, I can assure you, pilots are reporting you every chance they get.  The police are being called almost every time you launch outdoors, especially if you are within 5 miles of any airport, (which you are).

A drone has not yet come into actual contact with another airplane.  Still many believe you are entering into the most dangerous activity possible.  As a drone operator, you will be a minority group with very limited political support.  Careful.

Just because a drone has not come into contact with an aircraft doesn't mean it won't happen.  We as a society have an opportunity to not only be reactive but proactive.  We all have the right to reasonable privacy and absolute safety.  Or is it you want to wait until a Drone is sucked into an engine during a take off or landing ( the most vulnerable time for an aircraft ) when plane crashes with injuries and or death.  All of this also applies to cars, motorcycles and pedestrians.  Think about it.

Oh, yes I own a Drone and I and my family use it safely.  T

"absolute safety". only when you are dead...

Pretty sure police are not being called 'almost every time I lauch outdoors'.  Considering I've been flying for a year and not had a single run in with police or other law enforcement.  Lots of interested observers who seem to love UAV's but that's all.  Of course I live in a very rural area so maybe that's it.

Yeah I could see people in more population dense areas...there'd be a lot of worries,just for the sheer fact you have so many people with mixed opinions about drones...

I've been wanting to get a drone and gladly got it. I'm trying to do a lot of research and practicing, thank you for this article. Is it recommended to get a  GPS tracker for a drone, I don't want to end up losing or breaking my drone though. I heard a lot of drone crashes and fly away.

It's great that you are taking your time learning the basics and the tricks. Drone fly away is something that we can't control but with extra precaution, it can be avoided. It is actually better to invest in a dependable GPS tracker so you have a means to locate your drone in case it flies away. I have been using Trackimo and it's a great device.

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