Whether you have been flying drones for years or are about to take to the skies for the first time, there are a few things to keep in mind to help make the most out of your investment. This way you can make your experience as safe and fun as possible while giving you the best chance to use aerial photography to create some truly stunning images.
Below are five of our tips for flying your drone that we have learnt through our experiences to help you get started.
#1 Get Permission
No matter where you are flying, it pays to get the permission of anyone whose land you plan to fly over. For public land, this can vary from country to country, but in New Zealand you can look to the AirShare website for information and maps of where it is safe to fly, while in the United States you can use the FAA's B4UFLY mobile app. As a hard and fast rule, at least make sure you stay well clear of any operating airport, respect height limits imposed by your local authority and the second you see any other aircraft nearby, immediately come down to land. In the air, every manned aircraft has right of way over you.
For private land, make an effort to seek out the owner and ask first. For example, if you see an olive grove and think you could get a great shot flying overhead, head on in and check out their store. Nine times out of ten, they will be more than happy to let you fly, and this can be a great chance for a chat to find out a little more about the local area.
#2 Plan Your Flight
As tempting as it can be to just take off and start looking for shots, take a little time first to look around from the ground first and and think about how you might want to cover the area you are about to fly over.
While batteries are improving all the time and many of the latest drones can now stay in the air for more than 20 or 30 minutes on a single charge, you are still restricted by your maximum flight time. With this in mind, try to get any shots you will need to fly further away for first, then return to get any shots closer to your starting point at the end of your flight, just so you don’t find yourself without enough battery to get all the way out to a shot and back again to land safely.
You can further divide flights by covering all of the video shots you want in an area at once in a single extra long shot, then circle around again for still photos. This way, you can avoid wasting time switching back and forth between modes and choosing the optimal settings for each.
By planning out your flights in advance, you can cut down each flight to just 10-15 minutes, meaning you can fit in two or even three locations on a single charge.
#3 Have a Pre-Flight Checklist
Whether written down or just in your head, it helps to have a simple set of steps you can repeat and methodically go through every time before takeoff. More than once, We have been about to take off, only to realise the camera was still locked in place by the gimbal lock.
The checklist we use takes us through checking everything is in good condition, properly connected, free to move and properly powered so that we are confident nothing unexpected is going to go wrong before taking to the skies.
#4 Stay Alert
When you’re framing up your perfect shot, you can easily keep your head buried in your monitor, but it is vital to keep an eye up on your device at all times, or at the very least have someone who can do it for you.
While most modern drones feature powerful collision avoidance sensors, they can’t offer complete coverage, especially for obstacles to the sides, rear and above, which you may also miss while shooting a nice long sideways tracking shot out of the front mounted camera.
This is especially true when flying in tight spaces or around moving trees and water. While filming at Waiau Falls for our latest video, the drone started to rise unexpectedly while getting ready for a shot starting at the top of the falls. On the onboard camera, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. It was only by having actual eyes looking up at the drone could we see that it was getting dangerously close to tree branches above and immediate action was needed to safely move the drone out of harm’s way.
#5 Watch the Weather
Everything might seem fine from where you are standing, but the weather can easily catch you out if you fly far away and conditions change before you make it back.
This is particularly important when flying around coastlines, as you may launch from a sheltered cove, but the wind is possibly far stronger just a few meters out to sea or up above the headlands. If you start to see high wind warnings, pay attention, and try to move somewhere safer as soon as possible.
We have been caught out before, with our drone still drifting away from us even when trying to fly back home at maximum speed. Wind speeds tend to be a little lower down near the surface, so in this case, the best you can do is descend as low as possible and keep trying.
This might also be a good time to try out the “sport” mode on your drone if it has one. This mode increases the angle your drone will tilt to and the maximum power it can use, meaning it might increase the top speed enough to overcome the wind. Take care though, as this mode makes the drone less stable and drains the battery much faster, so it is better to use this only when you really need to.
If all else fails, just try to land as soon as possible. Even if you end up with a long walk to go collect your device, remember that the safest place for a drone is sitting on the ground. So if the weather is looking less than favourable, you are far better off calling it a day and heading off to find somewhere warm and cosy for a lovely hot chocolate.
Did we miss anything? Leave your tips on drone piloting in the comments below.