Posted by Jim Martin 17 March 2015
Quadcopter pre-flight checklist: 7 things you must do before flying your drone
I've spent a good deal of the past two weeks testing and reviewing quadcopters. A pretty fun job, it has to be said. As a complete novice to drones, and any flying RC gear for that matter, I've learned a lot very quickly and one lesson the hard way.
Because I didn't take the manuals seriously enough, I ended up with a flyaway: a quad that decided to escape into the sky, and I never saw it again. Had I been prepared, I probably wouldn't have lost control, but other mistakes were made which you can avoid.
This is why I feel adequately qualified to bring you - fellow newbie quadcopter owners - the definitive pre-flight checklist:
1. Make sure everything is fully charged.
This includes the quadcopter's battery as well as the batteries in your transmitter. Both are needed to ensure you get the maximum control range. My first mistake was to fly the quad with almost-run-out AA batteries, which is the most likely cause of losing control. If your drone relies on a smartphone, make sure that's charged up too.
2. Find a big, open space to fly
It's tempting to learn to hover in your garden because it's convenient. But it's amazingly easy to lose control and end up flying too high and too fast. And if you're inexperienced, you can panic and make things worse. I did. Had the same thing happened in a large field, I would probably have been able to retrieve the quad. But since it disappeared behind some houses, I had no way of knowing where it ended up.
3. Don't fly if it's windy
Quads don't generally cope well with strong winds. They get blown around and small, light drones can quickly be carried away even if you're using full power to try to overcome it. Be patient and wait for calm weather, or find a sheltered spot. This was my third mistake: it wasn't calm enough for my test flight.
4. Check for damage
Before you fly, and after each crash (of which there will be many to start with) inspect your quad for damage. Make sure the battery is secure, and that the wires are firmly connected. Check the rotors spin freely and aren't damaged.
When replacing rotors, replace like with like. Two rotate counter-clockwise, and the other two clockwise. Don't mix them up. This fact also means you have only two spare propellers: not four.
5. Have an emergency plan
When there's a problem, it's easy to panic and get brain freeze. Unless you have a plan worked out, you might do the wrong thing and make the situation worse.
First, then, practice how to control your quad so it returns to you even if you can't see which direction it's pointing. If your controller is set up in the normal way, you'll press the left stick left or right to make it turn on its axis. The right-hand stick controls forward, backward, left and right movement.
If you can't see it well enough, turn the quad using the left stick and see which way it's moving. If to the right, then keep pressing right until it's coming towards you. If left, press left. It's easy to remember, and always works… if you still have control.
In an emergency, the best move is usually to reduce the throttle so the quad descends. It's better the get it to the ground - safely if you can.
If you really have no control at all, turn off the transmitter and the drone might cut power to the motors and drop to the ground. This might cause damage, but it's better than flying away never to be seen again.
6. Mark your quad so it's identifiable as yours
I wish I'd thought of this before it occurred to me in hindsight. Had I written a phone number on a sticker, I might have received a call to say it had been found. If it's worth a lot, then it would pay to mention a "reward if returned" on the sticker too.
7. Calibrate (including GPS)!
Most quads have a facility to calibrate their compass or gyro, and you should do this by placing it on flat, level ground and using the instructions in your manual.
If your drone has GPS and supports a return-to-home function, don't skip setting it up. If it loses connection with the transmitter, it should use the co-ordinates you've set to fly to that point and land.
Once you get used to making these pre-flight checks they'll become second nature and take very little time. But they're worth it, and should help you to fly safely without losing your quad.