I’m always amazed when I look at how far video games have come. I remember looking at the controller for the original Nintendo when it was new out of the box. “Wow – look at all those buttons,” I gawked. In retrospect, that controller had nothing to it – a control pad and a couple of buttons. Nowadays video game controllers have more buttons than we have digits to press them. Still, I watch my seven year old control the tractors on Farm Simulator for XBox with total fluid control. He doesn’t even have to think about what he’s pressing – it’s muscle memory. The controls function naturally after some time to learn them. Getting good at a video game is really often the product of practice – the more you play, the more natural it becomes. Flying a drone isn’t much different. The more I use it, the more I find myself naturally adjusting my thumbs and pressing buttons without much conscious effort. To connect the same level of muscle memory to drone flight, I’ve developed some maneuvers to practice. Each description assumes a default control setup using a DJI Phantom 4 controller, but the principles can be applied to any drone. Find a nice, big area with no obstacles to give you room to make mistakes and improve.
Starting from a few feet above the ground, lift straight up while rotating. This only uses your left stick, simply placing it in a forward and left or forward and right position. Practice different combinations of quickly up with slow rotation, slowly up with quick rotation, etc. Rotate both clockwise and counterclockwise.
Mark four points of a large square on the ground, with roughly 10-20 feet on each side – chalk or any small object works well. Starting about 10 feet off the ground, fly from one point to the next, flying the full square pattern, all while facing one direction (face North for the whole flight, for example). This will only use your right stick. To illustrate, starting at point 1, you place the stick in a right position (to point 2), then forward (to point 3), then left (to point 4), then back to point 1 to fly the box. This practices putting together the back and forth and side to side motions, all at the same altitude. Vary up the size of your box and the direction you fly it. Then once you get proficient, when you reach one of the corners, rotate to face the next point each time. I recommend pointing your camera straight down when flying this pattern. Then at each point, when you stop, look at your screen to see if your point is directly centered, meaning you are right over it. Not only does this exercise work your coordination, but it hones your stop judgement as well, refining your ability to stop and stabilize exactly where you intend to.
To help coordinate both sticks, begin about 10 feet off the ground. Fly forward (starting at point 1), level until reaching point 2. Then gain altitude, reaching a peak at point 3. Start to descend back down while continuing to move forward to about 10 feet (point 4) before flying level to point 5. The flight path will look like an arch. Add variation by flying the arch backwards. Then try a left and right arch.
Circle The Wagons
Similar to square dance, but with a more challenging flight path, mark out 8 points that form a circle in a clear area. Start by flying the circle with the drone facing the direction it traveling. This will use a little forward right stick as well as a coordinated rotation on the left stick to maintain the turn. The trick is maintaining the right amount of both to keep the circle round. Once you gain proficiency, try to fly the same circle but with the drone facing the same direction the whole time (facing north, for example). This will use just the right stick in a coordinated circle motion, although I find this much more challenging than the first circle variation.
This maneuver brings all of the flight axes together in one fluid motion (axes is the plural of axis – I haven’t ever carried an axe on a flight). Start with the drone about 10 feet in the air and just in front of you, facing away (the same way you are facing). Fly the drone away and to the right while gaining altitude (from point 1 to point 2). Then fly a teardrop pattern, turning left at point 2 (still climbing through point 3 to point 4) and then back towards you (start a descent after crossing point 4). The peak altitude should be at point 4. Make a descending left turn through points 5 and 6 before descending straight towards home again (point 1). Vary the height climbed, the size of the teardrop circle and the direction of turn as you gain proficiency.
While many video games have a practice mode to work out the fine controls without enemies chasing you, it is often the gameplay itself that provides the context to learn the various “maneuvers” required in the game. Taking a drone outside to a field can lack the context needed to learn the control combinations that make you a proficient pilot. Working maneuvers like these into your flights can help you increase your flight control and precision. Feel free to create your own and add variations to the ones presented here. The whole idea is to connect what your mind wants the drone to do with your fingers on the controls, because with drone flight, the stakes are higher than a video game. Plus, there’s no 1-up mushroom to give you an extra life.
What are some ways you’ve found to sharpen your drone flying? Comment below and be sure to subscribe to our mailing list for great content each week! Follow us at facebook.com/FlyClayviation and Twitter/Instagram @clayviation