It’s the Fourth of July and there was a UAV flying over our town’s parade. Maybe he was taking a lead from that viral video of a drone flying through fireworks on the Fourth of July that made a stir awhile back. Was it a hobbyist flouting laws this time or a professional with permission? I was too busy selling lemonade for the Cub Scouts to investigate.
Either way, I’m hoping they’ve taken all the necessary precautions. As I grow my experience with UAVs, my caution has only grown. It’s not just about protecting your investment, it’s protecting people on the ground, including the pilot. I know of a photographer whose octocopter took a chunk of skin off his leg, to the extent that he’s written them off as “flying chainsaws.”
I’m sure others have more tips to add, but from what I’ve learned, here are 14 observations about how to avoid a drone crash that could do damage to yourself and others on your very first flight.
1. Treat Murphy’s Law as if it ends with heavy fines passed by the FCC. To avoid the worst that can happen, learn all you can about flying and your drone in particular. Consult all the manuals and follow all federal and local laws. The Know Before You Fly is a great website to start with. An educated pilot is a better pilot and a more skilled aerial photographer/videographer.
2. Don’t ever panic. The physiology of fear will cause you to either freeze up or freak out. I’ll never forget helping a friend fly a drone. When it started to veer away, he threw the controls in my hands and shrieked, “Get it under control!” It’s up to you to have steely nerves even when everyone around you is flipping out – not unlike Denzel Washington in the movie “Flight”. (Just don’t get coked up beforehand).
3. Eliminate reflections on your control screen. I’d suggest either using a hood, or even better, a non-reflective screen protector for your tablet or phone. Or both. Either way, I’ve had to make split-second or fast decisions while flying and making pictures. Making those crucial decisions while struggling with reflections is like trying to see the road at 65mph while driving into sunlight.
4. Remember that inasmuch as you should always fly line-of-sight (LOS), you can’t gauge the distance of obstacles from a distance. Always refer to the live view which you use for photos and video, but don’t trust that either. The wide angle view of the camera lens can fool you, the delay of transmission can delay imagery if you’re flying fast, and power lines can escape notice of your screen’s resolution until it’s too late.
5. If your flight path is straight, don’t assume you can fly UAV backwards to retreat safely. If your drone ever flies out of your LOS – never on purpose right? – there is a very good chance that, whether by wind or by controls, its flight path has subtly shifted. Flying it backwards in retreat could fly it right into an object you passed safely on the way out. I narrowly avoided making a drone into a Christmas ornament on a 100 foot tree this way.
6. Don’t rely on DJI’s safe flying website. It’s helpful, but if you want even more detail about determining safe flight paths, consult SkyVector.com. Yes, it really is intimidating, I totally agree, but we’re all pilots now.
7. Don’t fly over people, especially crowds. It may not be news yet, but the FAA has stepped up its enforcement of risky UAV behavior by making examples of those who flout laws, especially on the East Coast.
8. An obvious one, but don’t fly over places that might generate electromagnetic interference or interfere with signals to your craft. You don’t want to have switch flight modes mid-air when the GPS mode loses its bearings.
9. Set an appropriate altitude for the Return to Home or Failsafe mode of your drone. You don’t want your UAV to automatically fly into anything on the way back to the home point.
10. Moreover, make sure your home point is set correctly every time you fly. You don’t want the Return to Home function to send your drone to the home point from your last flight. Keep as much clear airspace around your home point, because the UAV won’t necessarily navigate automatically back to the precise spot of departure.
10. Wear bug spray before you fly outside. If you’re outside photographing in a rural area mosquitos will come over and feast on your hands and face while you’re trying to fly an expensive object in the air. It really can be a dangerous distraction.
11. Perform test runs in the days leading up to your flight. Update the flight app, calibrate the compass, the gimbal, the batteries and even the cardboard box if you could. You’ll likely find that there are new updates to firmware that could be useful or warning alerts you should investigate. I would check forums to see if there are complaints before you update because you know how that goes. You don’t want to be struggling to revert back to a previous version of system software on the day of a flight.
12. Batteries, batteries. Make sure they are securely positioned in the drone. Vibrations from flight have been know to exacerbate loose connections, causing a drone to lose power mid-flight. That would be a bad thing. Also make sure your batteries are retaining charge well. Checking up on your batteries every dozen flights is not a bad idea.
13. UAV’s can defy even those with the most experience, so resist the urge to be daring. The minute you get over-confident about its safety or your control is followed a few minutes later by the sounds of you screaming inside, “ABORT! ABORT!”
14. Avoid wildlife. I was flying once in a private nature area and a few birds parted from their flock to flirt with my drone. I’m hundreds of yards away and I was trying to shush it away like teenage boys from my daughter. “Go away! She’s not your type!”
15. Just like any vehicle, I would recommend not flying angry, drunk, scared, or with too much swagger.
16. I would also agree with what Know Before you Fly tweeted today on our nation’s holiday, “Leave the fireworks to the professionals this holiday weekend & keep your drone at home, #KnowBeforeYouFly on #July4”