I have made a ton of mistakes with my drone: I’ve managed to break all 4 propellers in one shot, get sand in my rotors, and generally crash it into all manner of obstacles — trees, mountains, and the like.
No, I am not a crash tester for drones, nor am I being careless per se. Looking back, I would say that I have been too ambitious at times — flying my drone in less than ideal weather conditions, for instance. Also, as with any new experience, there are a lot of things I know now I wish I had known then.
So, if you’re already using a drone or thinking of getting one, this article should help you avoid some inevitable mistakes and get the most fun and best results out of your eye in the sky.
01. Research laws and regulations well in advance
The fine print, yawn. This is naturally the least exciting bit about flying drones, but it is step one if you’re traveling, as not getting your paperwork in order may mean you are unable to fly at your destination. While some countries are becoming increasingly restrictive, a few countries have increased their bureaucracy on the one hand but managed to stay reasonable in their regulations on the other.
For instance, Australia has laws that are quite common when it comes to flying drones. Up to a certain weight, no extra pilot’s license is required. However, they do require that you apply for Aviation Reference Number (ARN) from the civil aviation authority. This is a simple process that can be completed online. However, in my case, they requested certified copies of my identification documents, which I ended up having to organize in-country, which was a bit of a mess.
That was a close call, but I managed to get things squared away. Unfortunately, my most recent trip was back to Canada, which now requires at least a “basic” license in order to fly — which entails a small fee as well as an online test. I had roughly two weeks to study and complete the test, but I was so busy before leaving, I wasn’t able to do it and had to leave my drone at home. Whether you need to study for a test or need to leave time for a long turnaround from a government agency, leave yourself lots of time to get your paperwork in order.
02. Scout locations on foot
Often times, there is a lot of excitement and desire to “get up there” when you’ve arrived at a particular destination. A drone is also faster at getting an overview of a particular location. Battery time is precious however, and while doing a reconnaissance flight may be more practical in some instances — if there is a ravine between yourself and your subject, let’s say — it can be beneficial to get the lay of the land on foot.
Walking forces you to slow down and take a moment to assess the scene and perhaps ask some helpful questions: What light is available? Is the light constant or changing? What elements are available to me? What would some unique perspectives be? The more time you spend surveying, the more likely you are to notice important or interesting details, which in turn increases the likelihood of getting unique shots and avoiding the more common or obvious compositions (see: straight down).
03. Use a launch pad
While drones are becoming increasingly robust, there are a lot of moving parts — some parts are more exposed than others. In particular, the gimbal and the propellers need freedom of movement and have joints or small openings, making them sensitive to dust, dirt, moisture, and the like.
I had to learn this lesson the hard way. I launched my drone on what appeared to be a flat, dry surface. However, there was dust and sand — barely visible to the naked eye — which was kicked up once the propellers started moving. The sound of sand in a rotor is not a pleasant one. It only affected one rotor, but that was enough to ground me for the remainder of a trip. In order to minimize the risk of jamming up your gears, get a launch pad to use for takeoff and landing.
Some drone pilots avoid this problem by launching and landing with their hand. A launch pad has the benefit of not putting your digits in harm’s way, but also clearly marking an area for passersby so they know to give you some distance. There are also launch pads with reflective material which make landing in low light conditions easier.
04. Review your shots on location
At the outset, this may seem unnecessary since you’re often watching a live feed of what your drone is photographing and recording. Maybe I am too conscious of battery time or maybe I am just a nervous Nellie, but I tend to rush things when flying my drone. More often than I care to admit, I’ve returned home to find I didn’t really “nail” some shots as well as I had initially thought.
One likely explanation for missing some of the finer details is that there is a lot to keep in mind at one time while you’re flying a drone. Nearby trees, groups of people, strong winds — there are often more factors to consider when flying a drone than just the exposure settings. So, you may see — but not fully register — everything that is happening on screen.
This problem is compounded by the fact that lighting conditions may obscure the display and make it hard to see — direct sunlight without shade for instance. There are all kinds of gadgets and additions to counteract this problem — from sun shades and VR goggles to tablet holders. However, I find that owning and operating a drone involves enough accessories as it is.
As a result, I’ve started double checking on location. If you don’t have or want to carry your laptop with you, consider a tablet and an article of clothing you can use to shade yourself with, in order to see the results clearly. That way, you can avoid unwanted power lines, camera shake, and other unwanted imperfections.
05. Propellers: Important extras for worst-case scenarios
While extra batteries and SD cards are a no-brainer for drones, you may not have a full set of extras for the worst-case scenario in your kit. Especially while traveling, it is important to prepare for all eventualities, since not all countries stock replacements and extras for drones. Even if they do, you might be a ways away from the nearest electronics store.
Propellers are usually quite durable, but because they rotate at high speeds, even slightly catching the ground while landing or grazing a tree branch can lead to chips and breaks. In those cases, it’s not only wise to have them but to have them with you at all times. I once managed to break all four at once and only had two replacements with me. Even though I was in Austria, I would not have been able to get any within 4 days.
06. Forget-me-nots for chargers
Similar to propellers, chargers can be a pain to find depending on where you are. They are also easy to forget since they are often attached to electrical outlets that an architect has intentionally hidden away for aesthetic purposes. I’ve done a double check of a hotel room and still managed to forget chargers. To counteract this common oversight and save time and money, it is helpful to develop good habits. For instance, attach your car keys to your charger. This has the added benefit of having a set place for your keys while traveling. Another solution, if you are without a vehicle, is to have a particular pouch or place where you keep certain items. That way, when you are packing your stuff, you don’t close the bag until everything is in its place. I actually have a zippered charger bag with set places for the important, less easily replaced chargers.
07. Think outside the drone
One last suggestion for drones is to come up with new creative uses for them. For instance, instead of using the drone as a camera, it can be used to carry LEDs or other lights for light painting. The drones themselves, given the right weather conditions, are sometimes stable enough to capture long exposures. Whether it’s using a drone for something other than its original purpose or using its existing capabilities for a new creative effect, the possibilities are immense. Break the rules of photography, abide by the law, fly safe and have fun.