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How To Fly A Quadcopter: Mastering The Skies

Jack Brown
Written by Jack Brown

Drones, quadcopters, tricopters, hexacopters, octocopters… These unmanned aerial vehicles  bring plenty of fun, and are unbelievably popular nowadays. Experts predict that in the next 5 years they will be even more popular all over the world which is why we think now is the best time to get you interested in how to fly a quadcopter.

There are numerous different models available on the market, but all the ads just say how great they are, they can perform aerial stunts, shoot amazing aerial footage, and so on. The problem is that, if you are new to this niche, you will probably be drawn to the fancy, more expensive models, because the ads say that they practically fly themselves.

That is SO NOT TRUE! Just like with, for example, cars, if you just got yours driving license, and you buy a Ferrari, the chances are that you will crash it the first day… The same goes with drones. You need experience to control serious machines.

Trying to fly a quadcopter

How to get experience? By flying of course. How to start lying? Well, this is where we jump in and give you some pointers on how to learn to be a quadcopter pilot. But, we have to warn you, this is a really addicting hobby. Once you are in… you will stay there!

But let’s talk about quadcopters a bit. Back in the days when computers started being popular, “computer nerds” started building their own computers instead of buying ready-to-use configurations.

The same case is with the quadcopter hobby. In the beginning, RC hobbyists built their models by themselves, and many still do. But, as the quad mania kicked off, many manufacturers started producing ready-to-fly-out-of-the-box models, which offered really amazing performances.

Quadcopter

The best thing is that this market is still developing, and better and better models are presented literally every few months. However, as we already mentioned, no one is telling you how to fly the darn thing, they just tell how amazing it is and what it can do. If you are an experienced drone pilot, it will work, but if you are a newbie, you will get lost, and probably end up with the wrong model.

There are plenty of hobby sites on the web that offer useful information, but most of them are focused on experienced drone pilots, and if you are a beginner, the stuff you will read there will look like an alien language. On the other hand, there are some sites that are sponsored by big time drone manufacturers, and will convince you that as a beginner, you need only the most advanced and the most expensive “self flying” quadcopter.

If, for example, you are a wedding photographer, and you want to buy a quadcopter to attach a camera on it, so that you can upgrade your wedding videos, and you get convinced by some “friendly” website to buy the most advanced model, you will end up like this guy:

Don’t do that. Without previous flying experience, you are not ready to fly a DJI Phantom. Instead, buy a cheap entry-level quad, master your flying skills, and then move on to a serious quadcopter. If you listen to our advice, your videos will look amazing.

But, before you get to there, you will need to learn how to fly a quadcopter. It is not that easy, and it takes some time, but on the other hand, it is not rocket science, and once you get the hang of it, it will just be easier and easier, and the fun level will be awesome! Let’s begin.

The first thing you need to figure out is the RC controller.

The controller

Channels & modes

In terms of the basic controls, the RC controllers have not changed that much over the years.  When come up to the term “Channels”, know that it refers to the controller’s number of directional controls.

Usually, to control a quadcopter, you need  4 channels of control: for throttle, Pitch, Yaw, and Roll. So, if you buy a quad with a 4-channel transmitter, you will get a controller with two control sticks. Most of the time, they are positioned one beside the other, and you control them with your right and left hand.

Channels & modes

However, what those two sticks, control, can be different from model to model.  And that is exactly why these variances are called “Modes”. There are 4 different modes, but the 2 most common ones are “Mode 1” and “Mode 2”.

Have in mind that once you start training in one mode, it will be almost impossible to switch to another. So when you decide to buy a more serious quadcopter, after you have mastered your skills with the small one, make sure that you get the same mode controller, or one that allows you to change modes. The most popular mode, among RC quadcopter pilots, is the mode2.

Rates

A quadcopter that is stabilized by a gyroscope can be controlled only by a predetermined maximum tilt in any direction.  If you push the pitch/roll stick to its maximum in any direction, you don’t have to worry about the quadcopter flipping over, because the gyro sensors will not allow that to happen. However, not all quads have the same predetermined maximum tilt value, and it varies from model to model.

The tilting comes as a solution to control the speed of your drone.  The higher the angle of the tilt is, the higher the speed is. Depending on the controller, you can even select different amounts of that deflection.  These variations are known as “Rates”, and they allow you to select the percentage of the maximum rate.

Flying the drone outside

To make it simple, if you want to fly your quad indoors, it would be a good thing to lower the rate down to, for example, 40%, because you don’t need your quad flying around the house at full speed. On the other hand, when you are flying outdoors, and there is a bit of wind involved, you should probably set the rate at 80%, or even 100%, in order to be able to fight the wind.

For beginners, lower rates are advisable, because the lower the rate is, the slower the quad reacts and tilts, allowing the pilots to have time to react. When it comes to higher rates, the tilting reactions are very quick, and the quadcopter can turn and stop rapidly, but these rates might be difficult to handle if you are a beginner.

Trim

If during the flight, your quadcopter constantly drifts in a particular direction, there are two basic reasons why that happens. The first might be because the wind  is pushing the drone in that particular direction. This can only be solved by slightly tilting the cyclic control towards the wind, in order to compensate for the wind, or  pointing the quad’s nose slightly toward the wind.

If there is no wind, and your drone acts funny, it can mean that the gyro sensor is a little bit disoriented, and constantly compensating to achieve what it thinks is the right level position. This can easily be corrected with the “Trim” buttons on the controller.

Drone trimming

Sometimes, the pitch and roll may need to be corrected every time you take out the battery. If your quadcopter immediately takes off at weird angles, flips, or cannot be controlled, it is possible that you don’t understand the importance of initializing your gyros.  So here is what you have to do every time you want to fly:

  • Position you quadcopter on a flat level surface.  Have in mind that placing it on a level surface is extremely important, because a tilted surface creates errors to the initialization of the gyros.
  • Connect the battery with the quadcopter, while it is on the level surface.  You can also connect the battery while you hold the quadcopter in your hands, but it needs to be put on a flat surface after IMMEDIATELY the battery is connected. In order to allow the gyro stabilizers time to initialize and set themselves to the level surface, leave your quad to remain motionless for about ten seconds.

Binding the controller to the quadcopter

After the gyros are set, you need to bind your controller with your quadcopter. It can be different from model to model, but for the cheaper models it is usually like this:

  • 3-axis quadcopter – Just turn the controller on, and wait for around 8 seconds. It usually beeps repeatedly, and when the controller is connected with the drone, it signals with a long beep at the end.
  • 6-axis quadcopter – Turn on the controller, push the throttle stick from 0 to full throttle, and go back to 0. There should be a beep that signals that the controller is connected to the quadcopter.

Trimming

When you let your quadcopter hover, and if it drifts to any direction (and there is no wind) while your hands are off the controls, you need to do the following:

  • If your quadcopter drifts forward, press the pitch trim backward repeatedly, until the drifting is gone. If it drifts backwards, press the pitch trim button forward repeatedly, until the drifting stops.
  • The process is the same for roll control.  If the drone drifts right, press the roll trim repeatedly to the right, and the opposite if it drifts left. Do this until you are satisfied how your quad hovers.
  • You can also apply Yaw trim, but that is usually unnecessary, because the yaw gyro is quite accurate with all models.

Turning

Making a turn with your quadcopter for the first time can be scary, and if you use a Mode 2 controller, you need to coordinate and combine movement of controlling the throttle, and applying yaw control for the turn. The first few times it will be difficult, especially if you are right handed.

Making a turn

But, just like with everything else in life, with practice, it becomes easier each time. After a while, you will do it perfectly without even thinking about it.

Banked turns

Quadcopter drone banking turns are something that most beginner pilots are not even aware that exists. Without a proper tutorial, most new pilots learn to make banked turns through time. But, doing it like that, usually means that they go down the wrong path. So, in order to have an idea how make a proper banked turn, read on.

A quadcopter can be turned in one of the three ways described below.

Pitch & roll turning

The is the easiest way to make a turn with your quad. You can do it by simply using the pitch/roll controller alone.  This is how most beginners turn the drone at the beginning. It is easy, simple, and you can turn in any direction.

However, this means that your drone will always point in the same direction throughout the turn, because no yaw control is applied. This also means that quick turns cannot be achieved.

Yaw turning

The second way to make a turn is by maintaining a forward pitch and velocity, and using the rudder control alone. Before trying to do banking turns, you should first learn how to perform yaw turns. Yaw turns are not complicated to perform, but are not a quite efficient way of turning.

Yaw turning

This method means that you will need a quite wide field to perform a complete turn. If you try this method, you will definitely notice how big the diameter of the turn is, and mostly because of a phenomenom known as the “sideslip”. Sideslip means that the drone slides outward from the turn, like when you are trying to make a turn with a car, on ice. Even though this method is not efficient, it is still the most popular way of turning when making an aerial video, because of minimal banking angle changes. This is also the easiest way to turn a 3-axis quadcopter.

Pitch, roll, & yaw turning

The third way you can make a turn with your quadcopter is making banking turns. This method is most popular among experienced drone pilots, and is the most efficient one, especially for a six-axis stabilized quadcopter. The accelerometers that are used for six-axis quads automatically sense and compensate  sideslips. A banked turn is the smoothest and quickest way to change the direction of a quadcopter. In order to reduce the number of crashes and hitting the obstacles, we strongly suggest that you learn how to make banking turns.

Since a banking turn requires some forward speed before turning, here is what you need to do:

  1. Gain some speed by pushing the pitch control forward, and maintain a steady altitude by adjusting the throttle.
  2. Six-axis quad: To make the turn, while maintaining the same forward pitch control, you need to both roll and rudder control at the same time, in the direction where you want to make the turn.
  3. Three-axis quad: To make the turn, you need to apply rudder first, and maintain it in the direction of the turn. When your drone starts to turn, you need to gradually apply the banking roll control, in the same direction as the rudder. Since you need to manually compensate for possible sideslip, you have to adjust the roll if needed. Of course, you can’t expect the perfect banking turn from the first try, especially because it is somewhat complicated to perform with a 3-axis drone. Just be patient, practice, and soon you will become an ace.
  4. For both six and three axis quads: If you want to make a tight or faster turn, you need to pull back a bit on the pitch, and at the same time maintaining the position of the yaw and roll controls.

Here is a video that gives you some quadcopter turning tips:

Now that we have explained some basics about quadcopter flying, the only thing left for you to do is get out there and practice. Our suggestion is to find a wide, open field, if possible with some soft green grass on it. Have in mind that you will definitely crash in the beginning, so practicing your pilot skills over a concrete area might not be the smartest idea.

Have patience, and remember, the more you practice the better you will become. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment in the comment section below and we will do our best to give you an answer as soon as possible. Happy flying quad pilots!

About the author
Jack Brown
Jack Brown

Jack is the Chief Pilot at MyDroneLab.com bringing experience, expertise and knowledge in this quite new industry. He is a graduate of the Drone/UAV Pilot Training Certificate program and member of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Besides having all the necessary technical knowledge when it comes to drones, Jack and his team love to spend the time outside by the ocean, working on new features and teaching others how to pilot these amazing and exciting new robots.

  • Andrew Miller

    Very useful. It’s a pity I didn’t read this article earlier and dropped my drone a couple of times before mastering the controls. I loved the last video with the flying tutorial and the split screen.

  • timothy smith

    Thank you for this clear guide. I will send this link to my friend, who just bought a drone some days ago. Nice addition to the instruction from the package.

  • I’m glad that you found it useful.

  • Thanks for the appreciation Andrew. Flying a drone is no rocket science. You get better with practice.

  • Mike Walker

    If I had seen this article when the drones took over my life, I could enter racing contests now. But as John said, practice is everything.

    • Jack Brown

      It is newer to late Mike 😉 What is stopping you from entering drone racing now?

  • Daryl Lu

    Well, experience is the best teacher. Even real-life pilots need to complete flying hours before they graduate from flying school. But flying a quadcopter is a skill that cannot be objectively judged. There are drones that are more stable and easier to fly, like the automated ones. So it’s also a matter of choosing the right equipment that suits one’s level of experience.

  • Jack Brown

    Exactly! You can’t buy a Ferrari if you don’t know how to drive, right? 🙂 If you are new to this hobby, the best way to begin is with a cheap, microdrone that doesn’t have any kind of flying assistance and take it slow. It will be frustrating in the beginning, but once you master piloting such a model, it doesn’t matter which model you will choose next, you will know how to control it.

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