Beginners Guide To Your 1st Drone For Aerial Photography & Videography

Nothing has caused as much buzz and interest as drone aircraft, which have literally taken over the RC world. The greatest draw comes with the advent of aircraft that are easy to fly for novice pilots, along with powerful real time video / camera systems that provide a bird's eye view of our world below.

Simply put, the RC drone has changed the way we see things, and if your next step is owning your very 1st drone, you've come to the right place.

So, What Is A Drone?

Well, to be perfectly honest, we've never been a huge fan of the word "drone," as it has several negative connotations to it, including negative (and often well deserved) media hype that has complicated the RC industry. However, let's avoid that rabbit hole and stick with what we know, and for simplicity's sake, we'll stick with the widely used "drone" terminology throughout this article.

A drone is typically a quad copter with a camera based system that is providing real time video feedback to the end user. However, it's not that simple, as there are many quad copters out there that offer this type of technology, with many designed for vastly different purposes. Even further, the word "drone" is used by many for any quad copter that flies, so we'll refine this a bit more to help gauge the exact specifics within this article.

Getting Specific

The drone aircraft we are discussing within this article are aerial photography drones - "AP" for short. With an AP platform, the aircraft carries a high-resolution camera based system that can take pictures and video from above, and provides this data feedback instantly to the user below.

This is not an "FPV" (First Person View) type setup that you see with other racing quads that are used with goggle based headsets. With an AP setup, you can certainly fly "FPV" by navigating solely via the video feedback you are seeing, but this is something we don't recommend, which we will detail later.

Flight Characteristics

With modern day drone aircraft, the technology at work is nothing short of stunning. With powerful built in navigation & GPS systems that are augmented by sensor based packages, a person with zero experience can "fly" one of these drone aircraft, as the aircraft in all reality fly themselves.

From taking off and landing on their own to returning home at the push of a button, these aircraft are massively easy to operate when it comes to basic flight. And due to built in stability systems, the end user cannot over control the aircraft in relation to pitch & bank angles, as the aircraft places limitations upon these angles to prevent a crash.

However, the simplicity and ease of flight have led to a dangerous indifference when it comes to those that have no background in RC flight. The lack of understanding and appreciation of the complex systems at play within aircraft of this type can lead to very dangerous behavior, which we will address as we move forward within this article.

Do I Need Any Experience To Fly A Drone?

Technically, no. Practically, yes. However, if you are brand new to the RC world and you have never flown anything before, a drone is a great place to start. It's all about understanding limitations, reading instructions, common sense, and respect. If you follow that specific path, you will have zero issues flying a drone safely, and will have a whole lot of fun doing so.

The good news is that those with zero experience can rely heavily upon the built-in safety systems these aircraft have to offer, such as:

- Built in auto level capability
- GPS position hold technology
- Obstacle avoidance sensors
- Auto takeoff & landing options
- Return to home features
- Real time data while in flight
- Aircraft orientation assistance

With the above systems at work, a user with no experience can gain confidence by utilizing these systems as they adapt to the flying characteristics of the aircraft. As experience is gained, it's best practice to not depend upon every single one of these systems to keep everything in check. Rather, it's best to utilize these systems to your advantage when necessary, while always keeping clear control of your aircraft at all times.

Which Drone Is For Me?

Regarding AP drones, the go to brand name that you will see just about everywhere is DJI. Simply put, DJI has been around a long time, producing some of the best RTF (Ready To Fly) solutions, which has allowed this industry to explode with exponential growth.

DJI has provided the best out of the box experience with everything the end user needs, and has developed some amazing aircraft with immense capability - all at a price point (relatively speaking, of course) that is quite incredible for what is being delivered. Other brands are widely available, but we recommend DJI based upon our experience within this market.

Based upon the DJI brand name, we carry three kits that are the latest & greatest via DJI, and fit the bill for most pilots in terms of what's being delivered.

DJI Mavic Pro - DJI-MAVIC ($999.00)
DJI Phantom 4 Pro - DJI-PH4-Pro ($1499.00)

We recommend you spend some time reading about these three aircraft to understand their features and differences.

To summarize matters, the Mavic Pro is a highly compact quad copter that can be folded down into a very small size, allowing ease of transport in very tight spaces. Offering similar capabilities as the Phantom 4 Pro aircraft, the aspect of size and ease of transport is the greatest differential of the Mavic Pro. In comparison, the Phantom 4 Pro (and Phantom 4 Pro+) are larger aircraft, although not oversized by any stretch. However, these aircraft do not have the ability to fold down to a smaller size like the Mavic, so transport can be more cumbersome. However, the Phantom 4 Pro kits have a better camera system, offering higher resolution pictures and images, along with greater levels of camera functionality. The Phantom 4 Pro kits also have a slightly longer flight time.

Aircraft Range

When it comes to these advanced aircraft, the effective range of control (with video feedback) is well beyond visual range, equating to several miles of effective range. This is certainly an excellent capability, but must be used carefully.

When it comes flight at a distance, in respect to FAA law (we'll get to more FAA information shortly), the aircraft being flown must always be within visual sight. If flown beyond visual range, this is now deemed illegal flight. And since us humans don't have eyes like our feathered eagle friends, flying several miles away is not just a bad idea, it's 100% illegal. We have spoken to hundreds of novice drone pilots in search of their 1st drone, and this seems to always be the most tempting aspect of flight - flying miles away, out of sight, while monitoring the flight using a real-time video feed. We get it - there's something to be said about the freedom of flying beyond what we can see, and it's simply amazing to have the technology that is capable of giving us this unfettered access. However, it's just plain illegal, and it's not smart. Let's learn why.

Range Anxiety

As appealing as it is to fly miles away as you view the world beneath you, it's just not a good idea. For starters, the video you're seeing is not 100% real time. There's latency involved, and even a few tenths of a second of latency can make navigating around obstacles a real challenge, which can lead to a costly crash.

Another aspect is your visual viewpoint is now restricted within the lens of the camera, which does not offer the same level of peripheral vision / depth perception that we take for granted with our human eyes. Now that you are navigating based upon only what your camera sees, you are now 100% dependent upon the visual info being provided, with no ability to see surrounding obstacles with the same level of precision and depth, thus putting your aircraft at great risk. But what about the on-board sensors that can detect obstacles? These sensors are excellent to help avoid obstacles and thus avoid a crash, but relying upon them as "navigation aids" is just a bad idea. Further, objects (such as trees) may not present enough mass for the sensor to "see" and avoid the obstacle, equating to a costly crash. Lastly and most importantly of all, when flying beyond visual range, you no longer possess situational awareness relating to your aircraft and the environment around you - specifically, people and property beneath you. Any competent pilot is always aware that failure is always an option. When it comes to an aircraft flying at altitude with a weight of several pounds, we are now talking about an object that poses the real possibility of serious injury, and in rare circumstances, death, if a crash were to occur. With personal injury being a real possibility in the event of an aircraft failure, don't place other people at risk when it comes to your hobby. It's one thing to put your aircraft at risk by flying beyond visual range, but to put people at risk is 100% unacceptable - it's not worth the risk. Even more, it's absolutely illegal.

Altitude Check

All too common in the drone world are pilots who want to push the altitude limits with their aircraft, pushing well past the FAA legal 400' foot ceiling. Not only is this illegal, but it's massively ignorant and incredibly reckless. Let's learn why.

The FAA mandated 400' foot altitude restriction has been put in place for a very specific reason. Above this threshold, you are now breaching full scale airspace and greatly endangering full scale aviators. Think about it - bird strikes have brought down full scale aircraft. Imagine what a quad copter that is constructed of plastic, aluminum & carbon fiber could do to an aircraft traveling at a high rate of speed. Most high end drone based aircraft have an altitude limit feature that will prevent the pilot from breeching the 400' mark. However, this can be turned off, allowing the pilot to exceed the mandated 400' altitude maximum. Even more, drones are small and difficult to see, nor are full scale aviators expecting to contend with airspace confliction with drone aircraft. Respect full scale pilots and fly legally by staying below the 400' altitude mark. Flying above this is massively reckless, and needlessly endangers the lives of aviators - a risk that no full scale pilot should ever have to contend with.

Do I Really Need To Register with the FAA?

Unfortunately, yes.

Due to some very ignorant people flying their drones in locations where any realm of common sense would suggest not to (think airports), all RC enthusiasts have now come under the scrutiny of the FAA. Due to this, pilots are now mandated to register themselves with the FAA, and subsequently place a registration number on their aircraft for identification. This is necessary with any aircraft that weighs more than 0.55 lbs., so unless your quad is on a mean diet, you're locked in to registering your aircraft. Of course, with any law of this nature, it's only those that abide by rule of law who will comply, so it really doesn't fix the problem for those who choose to thumb their nose at the law and not register. However, that's a deep, dark rabbit hole we'll avoid in this article! So, yes - you will need to register with the FAA, which is not as painful as it sounds. Here's the steps you need to take to accomplish this task.

#1: Visit https://registermyuas.faa.gov/

Be careful of other ancillary websites that can be found via general searches. Other websites mimic the FAA website and are setup to scam you relating to registering, so be sure to visit the official FAA website that has been noted.

#2: Create An Account & Register - $5.00 Fee

Once you create an account and register, you will be given a unique registration number, and you will need to agree with multiple terms & conditions that the FAA has mandated for safe usage of your aircraft. These are all common sense safety rules that everyone should practice, but be 100% aware that you are agreeing to these rules that have been noted via the FAA.

#3: Apply Registration Numbers

Once you have received your unique registration number, this number will need to be placed on the outside of the aircraft, or within the aircraft (such as a hatch) that is accessible without the use of tools.

If you have multiple aircraft, you will place the same number on every aircraft you own - you do not need to have multiple registration numbers, as it is you (the pilot) who is being registered.

Your 1st Flight

Okay, with all that out of the way, let's get to the part we all want - the fun of flying!

When flying in a safe, responsible manner, the amount of enjoyment you can obtain from flying an aircraft like this is amazing, not to mention the insane levels of capability these aircraft have to offer. Combine the enjoyment of flight with aerial photography, and you are bound to have a massively good time.

Before you attempt flight (especially if you have no experience), it is crucial to read & understand the manufacturer instructions. It's incredibly tempting to bypass this step and simply "read between the lines," but don't do it - you'll regret it! You've invested a lot of money in your aircraft, and the last thing you want is to end up crashing due to an oversight that you missed. These aircraft are very complex - you need to understand what your aircraft is capable of to use it effectively, and most importantly, safely. Once up to speed on everything regarding the aircraft capabilities, setup, and being sure the aircraft has been calibrated properly, be sure to take your first flight in an open area free of obstacles, tress and most of all, people. The risks of an in-flight incident are much higher on your first flight, so be sure to give yourself the space necessary for a successful experience.

Wind & Weather

By nature of design, drones are very stable, and due to built in stability & GPS systems, wind is usually a non-factor unless the wind speed is severe. If you feel wind gusts are quite heavy or the wind speed is very high, don't attempt flight and wait for calmer conditions. Every aircraft has it's aerodynamic limitations, and you don't want to push the limits with your machine.

Something to be aware of is wind velocity at differing altitudes. At ground level, the wind speeds may be tame enough for flight, but at altitude, the wind velocity can be much greater. And since you're stuck on the ground while your aircraft is flying above, you have no way to gauge the true wind velocity above to verify if you are pushing the extremes of your aircraft's capabilities. In scenarios like the above, look for clues in your environment, such as tall trees, birds circling above, and other such clues that point o high altitude winds. Another clue to wind speed is prop noise. Even several hundred feet up, you will be able to hear your props. If wind speed / gusts are excessive, you will hear rapid fluctuations in prop noise that propagate up and down as the props load & unload with wind gusts. The aircraft will also be oscillating during this time, but if at excessive altitude, you may not see such movements, so keep your ears tuned into prop noise for key indicators of wind gusts that may be problematic for your aircraft. Although we're sure this is obvious to all, flying in the rain is just a bad idea. Electronics and water don't mix, so if the forecast is looking damp (or snowy), put your flight off for another day.

Privacy

Modern day drones have near military capability that offer a unique "eye in the sky" capability that provides you with a view that is simply unparalleled. However, with this capability comes complications - privacy being a key issue when it comes to drone flight in urban areas & beyond.

With drones in the daily media (often in a negative light), everyone on planet earth knows what a drone is. Even more, everyone is aware that a camera system is on board when it comes to a drone - something that some people may not appreciate buzzing around their property. Even if you're flying around and paying no attention to your neighbors below, from their point of view, they may feel you're spying on them from above - something certain people will take great issue with. Just think about it this way: if you and your family walked outside of your home, and your neighbor across the street began snapping photos of you and your loved ones, this would more than likely make you feel uncomfortable, if not angry. So, you should use the same logic when flying above. Even though it may not be your intention to spy on others, your neighbors may feel otherwise, and YouTube is rife with nasty encounters of this type, which do not turn out well for the aircraft or operator! Common sense goes a long way here. Not only is it a bad idea to fly in an urban environment with people around (remember the FAA documents you signed), but the likelihood of upsetting your neighbors is something you need to factor in as well. Due to this, it's a much better idea to fly in a location that is free of people, allowing you to explore without worry & stress. Even more, you will probably find much more aesthetic locations outside of urban areas, which will look much better from the air, and on film as well!

Camera Capability

Unlike your smart phone that snaps photos with little need to make adjustments, most drone aircraft have incredible camera systems that are on par with professional grade cameras. And with capabilities like this, you now have the ability to take exceptional photos and videos by leveraging the capabilities your camera has to offer.

If you are a novice when it comes to photography, it is worth investing in a book that will allow you to learn about the basics of photography so you can maximize your aircraft's potential. Because in all reality, the camera is the only portion that counts - the aircraft is ancillary, as it's only job is to get the camera to the view you desire. You can find some great low cost and easy to understand books about photography just about anywhere. I found mine on Amazon and downloaded it to my iPad for quick reference, allowing me to use it on site since my iPad also serves as the monitor for my aircraft. In short, you have invested a great sum of money in your aircraft - take it to its full potential, and better yet, capture imagery that is truly stunning!

Putting Your Drone To Work

We cannot overstate how many customers have contacted us about purchasing their first drone with wide eyed dreams of turning a profit and making it big. Obviously, this is an appealing thought - a hobby you love that can earn you cash! However, it's not that easy - let's explain why.

According to the FAA, they have no problem with you flying around (safely and within the noted rules, of course) and having a great time as you film the world below. However, if you want to turn a buck, things get complex. If you want to start your own business and make money with your drone, the FAA mandates that you complete a certified UAS Certification Course via the FAA, which is extensive in nature, requiring multiple steps & tests to complete. If this is your direction, the FAA provides all necessary information that can be found via the www.faa.gov website. Why is such testing & certification required? Since you will be working within urban environments around people, property and operating within various airspaces, the FAA mandates these measures to keep people & property safe by following all noted guidelines and safety procedures. For those that choose to bypass this route and use your aircraft for profit without certification, be warned - the fines for such behavior are brutally steep, so do the right thing and follow proper procedures. It's just not worth the fines, and the knowledge is crucial when it comes to keeping people safe. Remember - these aircraft have many built in safety systems, but there is never a 100% guarantee that an in-flight incident won't occur, whether this be pilot error or equipment failure. Due to this, rules are set in place to keep things safe.

Enjoy!

We hope this information has been helpful when it comes to your first drone and all that comes with it. Yes - it's a lot to take in, and we hope the information presented has provided you with insight that will aid you in the responsibility drone ownership entails.

You will quickly learn that basic common sense covers 95% of everything we have detailed, and if you take the additional few steps to cover that last 5% by being responsible and mature, you will be able to reap the vast rewards these aircraft offer.

Want To Know More?

Check out the "Know Before You Fly" website that has been setup by the FAA. This is a dedicated RC specific website that will fill in any safety & legal gaps, allowing you to be up to speed on everything you need to know when it comes to safe & effective RC flight.