In today’s ultra-politically correct climate, there’s etiquette – or certain expected behaviors – for nearly every situation under the sun. Sure, golf etiquette has been around for hundreds of years now, but there’s also internet dating etiquette (stop with the shirtless selfies in the dirty mirror, bro), office etiquette (no microwaving leftover fish in the break room), hell even Southwest Airline’s obnoxious boarding “system” has its own etiquette (Don’t board with Group A when your ticket clearly says Group C – you’d be surprised how many adults have a hard time following that one).
Drones too have a system of unwritten rules that governs their use among us responsible, conscientious adults that don’t want to disturb others with our newfangled hobby. Until some of the legal grey areas surrounding drone usage are cleared up, it’s best that we drone pilots do our best to fly under the radar for the time being.
So with that being said, here are 7 Deadly Sins to avoid when you fly the friendly skies this summer:
1. Throttle Abuse Is Serious Business: One of the easiest mistakes to make when unboxing a new drone is to take it directly outside for its first flight and try and see what heights one can reach by aggressively mashing the throttle up. This activity in most cases will result in a crashed, lost, or otherwise destroyed drone. Your best bet is to give yourself about a month or two of flight training in a controlled, indoor setting to get the hang of the controls prior to taking it outside. Being that I travel for work, I’ve found empty hotel conference rooms are fantastic practice areas for drones, and the staff usually won’t mind you buzzing around these rooms if you give them a chance with the controls. Once you’ve mastered indoor maneuverability, then you are ready to deal with such variables as wind speed, weather, birds and whatever else Mother Nature can throw at your flying robot.
2. One Battery To Rule Them All: Most drones are powered by small, inexpensive and easily interchangeable Li-Po batteries. One will typically keep your drone in the air for anything from 15-30 minutes, and that time is usually cut in half when the camera is operating. Having two or three fully-charged spare batteries for immediate swap out when the first one dies lets you extend that flight session beyond the “man, that felt like five minutes” realm.
3. Flying Where Everybody Knows Your Name: While it may seem like a great idea to send your drone up over the neighborhood to get some sweet aerial shots to share with the neighbors, most neighborhoods in the United States are filled with two things that drones need to avoid in order to stay operational: roofs and trees. I can’t tell you how many times friends of mine have purchased cheap hobbyist-level drones like the Hubsan X4 and in the first few flights have deposited their purchase up a massive pine tree or on a neighbor’s roof. Do you really want to have to bang on Bob’s door and beg him to let you on his roof to find your drone? Didn’t think so. Most of the time, it’s best to fly in areas that offer ample space and not much in the way of trees or houses, like public parks or open fields.
4. Wind Matters: On certain days when wind speeds reach into the double digits, it’s often best to exercise caution and wait until a more tranquil day for your next flight. There’s video after video on YouTube of some of the most powerful and expensive drones being swept away by prevailing wind gusts after flying too high and losing connection with the controller, and even that “fail-safe” GPS-enabled Return To Home feature will struggle and oftentimes fail when flying into a strong headwind. Trust me, just wait a couple days until the wind dies down. You’ll thank us when you still have your drone and haven’t lost it or had to wade into a disgusting drainage ditch to save it like this guy:
5. Tablet/Mobile Phone Control: Call me old-fashioned, but for this author nothing duplicates the feel and responsiveness of a separate dedicated flight controller. Many drones now, however, are coming out with mobile apps for iPads and Android phones that are meant to replace the flight controller. Some are even doing away with flight controllers all together and only making controls for their drones available via these apps. Now, if you’ve never tried to fly with one of these apps, allow me to give some advice that will save you some trouble (and $): stick with the traditional two joystick flight controller until you feel EXTREMELY confident with the mobile app controls. They take a lot of time to get used to, and if your phone or tablet tends to be buggy and freeze or lag, you’re better off saving the phone for Tinder convos and sticking with the old-school controller.
6. Airfield Awareness: FAA has really stepped up in recent months with its more accommodating approach to drone usage by civilians. However, one aspect that FAA surely does not play around with is operating near active airports. Regulations clearly state that it is illegal to operate within a five-mile radius of any active airport or runway, and that’s not just major airports it includes small regional and local airfields as well. Until the drone companies create software that disables their products from leaving the ground when within the five-mile zone (similar to the update DJI pushed out to all its drones after the Phantom crash landing on the White House lawn, disabling them in the metro-Washington D.C. area), it is incumbent upon drone pilots to be aware of their surroundings and any nearby aviation operations that they could affect by flying. For this I recommend iPhone users pony up $1.99 and purchase the RCFlyMaps app. The app uses the phone’s GPS to show no-fly zones, as well as locations vetted by the Academy of Model Aeronautics as safe places to take off.
7. This Isn’t A Casino: Above all else, over these last 8 months that I’ve become a wannabe drone pilot, I’ve learned that simple common sense can save most situations from becoming untenable disasters. There is just no reason to be taking unnecessary risks with an expensive piece of equipment that can cause great harm to others when used in the wrong manner. Being responsible and not subjecting others to risk of injury or damage to personal property are two of the absolute best pieces of advice I can give any novice drone pilot. Just as my old man always taught me to think before I speak, I implore you to just use some of that God-given common sense and think before you launch.
And now I’ll stop preaching. Happy flying all.