With the rules and regulations governing drone flying becoming ever tighter, it’s well worth spending time to learn the basics before you take off for real. We'll explain the jargon as well as exactly how to control a drone.
See also: Best drones to buy right now
How do I control a drone?
Most drones arrive ready to fly, with a remote control that is already paired, or bound, to the drone. Read your manual to find out whether you should turn on the controller or drone first: do it in the wrong order and it might not work at all. It shouldn't matter for a lot of models, though.
NOTE: The control sticks are almost always in ‘mode 2’, which is what we’ll describe here. If yours arrives in mode 1, it means the throttle is controlled with the right-hand stick instead of the left. You can usually switch to mode 2 if you prefer.
We’re using a DJI transmitter here, but yours should look similar. The method of starting the propellers varies, so check your user manual. With the DJI, you pull both sticks down and towards each other. Some drones may have an auto-takeoff button on the controller, or in a companion phone / tablet app.
You should – as a beginner – stand behind the drone rather than to the side or in front. This will keep things as simple as possible, so make sure you know which is the front and which is the back of your drone.
You should use tiny adjustments when moving the sticks. Using the full travel is almost never a good idea and could make your drone crash.
The left-hand stick controls the elevation. In other words, pushing the stick upwards will make the motors spin faster and the drone will climb higher, and pushing it downwards will slow them down and cause the drone to descend.
With some quadcopters, the motors will stop completely when the stick is at the bottom of its travel. Obviously this is a bad idea if it’s high up in the air, so be careful not to move the throttle too much and avoid over-correcting.
Other drones, such as DJI models, have a sprung throttle which always returns to the centre. To stop the motors, you have to pull the stick to the bottom and hold it there for a couple of seconds.
The left stick also controls ‘yaw’. This is the rotation of the drone: if you view it from above, pushing the stick left will make it rotate counter clockwise and pushing it to the right will make it turn clockwise.
Pushing the right-hand stick upwards will cause the drone to move forwards. Pushing it down will make it fly backwards – towards you if you're behind it. This is also called the ‘pitch’ control.
To make the quadcopter move left or right, you simple push the right-hand stick left or right. This is called the ‘roll’. These controls are reversed – of course – if you are standing in front of the drone. It’s exactly the same with a radio-controlled car.
How do I make a drone hover?
Not all drones can hover in one position, and these tend to be the cheaper models. They are also harder to fly as you will have to constantly adjust the throttle to maintain a certain height. Typically this is called flying in ‘attitude’ mode (not altitude but attitude.)
A drone doesn’t have to have a GPS to be able to hover: some use a barometer or other sensor do this. However, without GPS, a drone can easily be blown around. GPS enables your drone to automatically fight against wind and keep – roughly – its exact position without you having to adjust any controls on the remote.
Can I use a drone simulator before I fly for real?
Some drones have a transmitter with a ‘trainer’ port. If you can get hold of the required cable you can hook it up to a laptop or PC and install the software which lets you control a virtual drone with your real controller. This will allow you to get a feel for the controls before flying in the real world.
Similarly, DJI has built a simulator into its DJI GO app, so you can practice flying with the controller before taking to the skies. To find it, launch the app and tap the menu button in the top-right corner. Then choose Academy and you'll see the Simulator.
Simulators let you practice the basics as explained above, plus more complex manoeuvres including bank turns and even flying in a circle. These are hard to pull off, even with a GPS-enabled drone.
Some software, such as RealFlight comes with a controller in the box, so you can fly before you buy a drone.
Now that you’re ready to head out for your first flight, have a look at our pre-flight checklist for safe flying… and have fun.
Are there drone training courses?
There are many courses available, predominantly aimed at those wanting to fly commercially. You'd need a commercial licence if you want to use your drone for any business purposes. That could include shooting wedding videos or if you're an estate agent taking aerial photos of houses. For more, see the CAA's Permission for Commercial Operation page.
Here are a few courses you can check out:
Heliguy - Newcastle, Manchester, Farnborough
DronesDirect.co.uk - Barnsley or Milton Keynes (with free resit if you don't pass first time).
The Aerial Academy - Alnwick, Cobham (London), Bath, Liverpool, Norwich, Swansea
There are also online courses which cover specifics such as how to shoot great aerial footage with your drone, or build a racing drone from scratch: