So, you have a new drone... now what?

So, you have a new drone... now what?

Part 1: Flight School

Santa drone is coming to town!One of the hot items this holiday are drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). If you were fortunate to receive this as a gift, this blog series offers three ideas on how to make the most of your experience and have a fun and rewarding experience.

The first in this series is called Flight School and offers some tips for novice flyers. This does not, however, provide drone-specific advice or deal with outdoor safety issues. We recommend learning to fly in a large indoor room with lots of space. The drones we used were hobby-level models available at most retail stores.

All of the lessons featured in this blog series are based on what we have learned in preparation for an aftershool program called Engineering Experiences sponsored by the National Science Foundation. All lesson are available on the UCAR Center for Science Education website.

In working with my ten year-old son and wife, I used the lesson called 'Flight School' to acclimate them to some basic flight terminology (roll, pitch, yaw) and show them how the controller works.

Simple UAV model made from wooden rulersBefore attempting an actual flight, we used Popsicle sticks glued together as makeshift drone models to demonstrate these terms (roll, pitch, yaw) in general, what the resulting motion would be (which is a bit different from a plane), and how the controller affects the Popsicle stick drone. My son and wife benefited from flight school.

Quote from Diane:

Flight school took away the stress of playing with the drone. In a previous experience where I tried to fly a drone but didn't have these lessons, I was always worried that the drone would crash into something and break either itself or something else because I wasn't proficient at using the remote control.

In the initial flight school lessons I learned how to use the drone's remote control without the drone. Instead a toy building block was substituted for the drone. The lessons taught me to use roll, yaw, and pitch on the block before I could practice it on the drone.

The real benefit of the flight school lessons to me was to learn the capabilities of the remote control without the stress of making mistakes.

Next, we learned how the controller moves the drone by having one person hold the drone (or Popsicle stick model) and move according to how the person manipulated the joysticks on the controller. We 'flew' in a makeshift obstacle course in our living room. After everyone had a turn, we were ready for First Flight.

Part 2: First Flight

The reason I recommend flying indoors in an open space is that the movement of the drone we use is affected by the slightest breeze. Also, we don't have to worry about trees, people and other hazards.

We had first flight in our garage with the doors closed and plenty of empty space. I designated a safe zone where people can stand and assigned a 'range safety officer' to look out for dangers and alert everyone in case the drone moved toward people. I made sure that the flight zone was always away from people.

The first flight didn't go as planned. The drone did not hover after take off as intended. Rather, it moved forward into the garage door several times. I needed to calibrate the controller to adjust. Finally we were successful.

As I handed the controls over to my son and wife, it took some time for them to get used to the sensitivity of the controller. I tried to encourage them to be persistent and keep trying, as practicing and mastering the skill of controlling the drone takes time.

After a few tears and some close calls, I decided that having the pilot sitting on a chair with the safety officer close by was a good idea. We are still working on the aerial challenge of flying the drone across the garage with a soft landing inside a hula hoop, but I know with practice we will all be successful.

In our next blog, read about some performance tests that will give you information about the capabilities of your drone.