In this tutorial we’ll cover the essential technical stuff you need to know to fly a drone. Knowing the technical specifications of your drone is important because, in order to get great shots, you have to fully understand what your gear can—and really can’t—do.
Fly That Drone Inside the Lines: Technical Limits
My advice is focused on the DJI Phantom series of drones, but the things to look for are the same for all drones.
Know Your Drone’s Battery Limits
One of the first questions to ask is flight time per battery. This is usually roughly 10 to 14 minutes for most models. Manufacturers claim much more time on their specs, from 20 to 23 minutes, however that is if you drain the battery completely—which definitely isn’t recommended for most flights. It is common practice to begin to land the drone with about 35% battery left, to prolong the life of the batteries and to have some flight-time left in case something happens and you can’t land immediately.
Also note that drone batteries have a limited shelf life. They will eventually ‘bloat up’ and expire. It’s not that your drone will just suddenly fall from the sky one day, but the batteries do inflate with repeated use. Once they reach a certain inflation level, you must dispose of them properly because they can pose a serious fire hazard. If you can no longer fit your flight battery into your drone or if you see any battery leakage, dispose of the battery immediately. Proper battery maintenance includes a full discharge of the battery about every 15 charges. Batteries should be stored with about 50% charge. With proper maintenance you can expect a battery to last one to two years, or roughly 200 flights. Some could last longer even, and others can expire much faster. (It all depends a lot on the user!)
Know Your FPV Transmitter Limits
Depending on which drone you choose, you have different methods of observing your footage from your controller. For most people’s purposes there are two main types: digital antenna and wifi signal.
A digital antenna is definitely the less superior choice of the two. These are primarily used with the Phantom 2 and a GoPro camera. In my opinion this method of observation is now outdated, but it is by far the cheapest way to view you footage live if you need use a GoPro camera.
A much better solution is a transmitter that uses a wifi signal, such as those on the DJI Phantom 4 and DJI Inspire 1. These work though a wireless signal sent to your device, a tablet or smart phone, mounted on the controller. The signal is typically much stronger, high-definition, and has a much longer range.
Know Your Maximum Flight Distances
Typically your drone’s FPV signal is going to cut out long before your radio control signal does. This is both good and bad. It is good because as the video signal begins to go out, this can act as a good indicator that it may be time to turn around and fly back to a closer range. It is bad however if the signal cuts off completely, because then you are “flying blind” and unless you can physically see your drone (and the direction it is pointing toward) this can make it more difficult to navigate back into range.
GPS Fail-Safe Systems
All of the DJI drones I’ve mentioned in this lesson have GPS Fail-Safe systems. With a GPS Fail-Safe a drone will automatically fly back to where it originally took off if it completely loses radio signal. It may also do this if the drone battery gets dangerously low.